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International Arms Dealer Arrested in Thailand


What do the Taliban, Liberian dictator Charles Taylor and the U.S. military have in common? They've all worked with Russian arms dealer Victor Bout, known as the Merchant of Death and the Lord of War.

Bout was arrested today in Thailand after evading U.S. and international authorities for years. He's accused of conspiring to sell millions of dollars worth of weapons to the rebel group, the FARC, that we just heard about.

Starting in the 1990s, Victor Bout made a business of providing arms to fuel wars from Sudan, to Sierra Leone, to Rwanda, to Afghanistan. But he avoided arrest until now because Russia has long refused to extradite him. Bout was lured to Thailand where he could be arrested after an eight-month long sting operation led by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.

L.A. Times reporter, Stephen Braun co-authored a book about Victor Bout and joins us now.

And Stephen Braun, tell us about this sting. They needed to get Victor Bout out of Russia, how did they do it?

Mr. STEPHEN BRAUN (Reporter, L.A. Times; Co-Author, "Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible"): They relied on some old style law enforcement spy craft. They used several informants including apparently one source who was close to Bout. They lured him into a number of meetings that took place in Curacao, across the globe, and finally were able to get him to sit in a hotel in downtown Bangkok where he thought he was finalizing details on this arms deal and it turned out the Thai authorities were waiting for him.

BLOCK: How did he get his start in this business?

Mr. BRAUN: He started in the early 1990s as a former member of the Russian military establishment where we reported he was able to get the contacts in the GRU, Russian military establishment wing, started out with three old Russian airplanes and began flying both arms and, you know, legitimate goods across the world in never-ending circuits, eventually, built an air fleet of about 60 planes circled the globe.

BLOCK: In many - over the course of many years, he fueled conflicts all over the world. As we said, he also did a lot of work for the U.S. military, I think.

Mr. BRAUN: He did. Ironically, after helping to enflame conflicts in Africa throughout the 1990s and even working with the Taliban and Afghanistan and indirectly, al-Qaida by both shipping arms and also providing planes to the Talibs, he then flipped and began working for the U.S. military and also for private contractors in Iraq. His planes flew hundreds of flights between 2004 and 2006, and he earned millions at the same time that he was on a U.S. Treasury Department blacklist.

BLOCK: And how did U.S. officials justified that? How did they explain it?

Mr. BRAUN: A lot of shrugs and non-return phone calls. They've never officially talked about the relationship that makes them very uncomfortable and with good reason.

BLOCK: Have they denied it?

Mr. BRAUN: No, they have not denied it. In some cases, the government agencies that knew about it such as the U.S. Air Force when supposedly learned about it, move very quickly to end those contracts. But another case such sent com, in fact, urged the Treasury Department to hold off on their blacklist for several weeks while they could finish doing business with him.

BLOCK: Hmm. What happens to Victor Bout now? Arrested in Thailand, U.S. wants him extradited. Where does he go?

Mr. BRAUN: Well, you know, ostensibly, he should be extradited. That's what feds would like. The Thai government is a strong ally but there are indications that the Russian government would like him back too. And because of some of these embarrassing questions about Bout's prior relationship with us, there's some doubt as to whether he'll actually ever go to trial here.

BLOCK: But he was protected by the Russian government, wasn't he while he was in Russia?

Mr. BRAUN: He was, indeed. The Russians when he was indicted by the Belgian government for money laundering scandal in 2002, claimed that their constitution could not allow them to give him up. And so they have refused to send him over to the Belgians, so the Russians have good reason to want him back.

BLOCK: Any other countries that would like a piece of Victor Bout in court?

Mr. BRAUN: Well, the South Africans, they had a case against him in the late 1990s as well. The authorities in the United Arab Emirates had at various times tried to shut his operations down, so there a number of countries that would like him.

BLOCK: Okay, Stephen Braun, thanks so much.

Mr. BRAUN: my pleasure.

BLOCK: Stephen Braun, co-authored a book about Victor Bout called "Merchant of Death." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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