MOSCOW // A long and bitter battle between Washington and Moscow ended yesterday when Thailand extradited the alleged Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout to the United States to face terrorism charges, whisking him onto a charter flight in a secret operation that caught even his wife by surprise.
The Russian foreign ministry denounced the extradition of the former Soviet military officer, a man many presume to be privy to sensitive secrets, as illegal. It said the extradition was "the result of unprecedented political pressure put on the government and judiciary of Thailand and vowed to "defend the legal rights of V A Bout as a citizen of the Russian federation."
"This whole thing is an example of blatant injustice," said the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov.
The Obama administration is bracing for a Russian backlash, but US officials hope the reset in relations with Moscow can weather the storm. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said yesterday that Bout's extradition would likely create "ripples" in ties. But Mr Crowley stressed that the overall US-Russia relationship is mature and any concerns about the Bout case can be "managed."
Mr Bout, 43, was the inspiration for the character played by Nicolas Cage in the 2005 Hollywood movie Lord of War, an amoral "merchant of death" who plied his trade in some of the world's most vicious conflict zones. The real-life man is said to have spent 15 years peddling weapons to African warlords and Islamist militants. He was arrested in a sting operation at a luxury hotel in Bangkok in March 2008.
The operation took months to put in place and was carried out by US Drug Enforcement agents posing as buyers for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or Farc, which the United States regards as a terrorist group. Mr Bout was lured to Thailand allegedly to finalise a purported US$5 million (Dh18m) deal for shoulder-fired missiles.
In the two years since his arrest, Russia has campaigned fiercely to prevent his extradition, presumably because of his wide knowledge of Russian military and intelligence matters.
At times, it seemed Russia might prevail. Mr Bout was at one point freed from his Thai prison. But the US appealed the ruling and, in August, a Thai judge ruled that the extradition should take place by November 20. Thailand beat the deadline by a few days, apparently surprising Russian officials, Mr Bout, his lawyers and his wife, Alla.
"The operation was a secret," she told the Russia Today television after rushing to the prison in vain. Mrs Bout complained that her husband had been shipped off like a piece of air freight, "like a thing," she said.
The Thai cabinet approved the extradition yesterday and, within hours, the man reputed to be the world's biggest arms merchant was on his way.
"I came to the prison but Viktor was no longer there," his wife lamented. "Viktor's term was up and, under the law, he was supposed to be freed because from the legal point of view, we had every ground to win this case."
Mr Bout's lawyers in Bangkok also called the extradition illegal. They said neither they nor Russian diplomats had been allowed to see Mr Bout before he was taken away. Photos show the mustachioed Bout, chained and wearing a bullet-proof vest and a blue track suit, being hustled under heavy guard to a US-bound plane. The operation involved a decoy motorcade and dozens of police commandos in full combat garb.
Mr Bout and the Russian government have never wavered in their insistence that he is an innocent businessman, not an arms dealer. He set up his air cargo business after the Soviet collapse gave rise to all sorts of ambitious ventures in fields once reserved to the state.
His operations were far-flung and he did business in some of the world's hottest hot spots. He reportedly counted the Afghan Taliban among his clients and accepted blood diamonds in payment from some of his African customers. Less colorfully, his company has ferried United Nations peacekeepers from Pakistan to East Timor and worked for US government contractors in Iraq. For a while, a fleet of his cargo planes operated out of Sharjah.
The Russian government's vigorous efforts to prevent Mr Bout's extradition has inspired speculation about what - and whom - he knows. For his part, Mr Bout has consistently denied he knows anything about Russian military or intelligence matters or that he enjoys high-level Kremlin connections.