Viktor Bout: The £6bn 'Merchant of Death'

After two years in a Thai jail, Viktor Bout, the Russian arms dealer known as the 'Merchant of Death' is to be extradited to face trial in America on terrorism charges.

Is this the end of the road for Viktor Bout? After two years in a Thai jail, the Russian arms dealer known as the "Merchant of Death" is to be extradited to face trial in America on terrorism charges. Bout, 43, is accused of fuelling the world's most bloody conflicts and striking deals "with a remarkable axis of ne'er-do-wells", from the Taliban and Hezbollah, to the most murderous regimes in Africa, says The Economist. But the trial of this "international man of mystery" may also sound uncomfortable "echoes of Cold War spy games".

Bout inspired Lord of War, a 2005 political thriller starring Nicolas Cage. His 2008 arrest could equally have been lifted from a Hollywood screenplay, says The Daily Telegraph. He was caught in a sting in a five-star Bangkok hotel by US agents posing as members of the Colombian terrorist group FARC planning an attack on the US. No sooner had he assured them that he could supply a complete inventory, from 5,000 AK-47s to surface-to-air-missiles, than police burst in and snapped handcuffs on him. "The game is over," cried Bout.

A master of deception, he adopted at least seven aliases in a career spanning two decades. The details of his life are as fuzzy as his identity, notes The Guardian. Born in Tajikistan in 1967, the son of an accountant and car mechanic, Bout graduated from the Soviet Union's military institute for foreign languages, before joining the GRU a shadowy arm of the Soviet army. When the Berlin Wall tumbled, supplies of surplus weaponry and fleets of military transport aircraft were up for grabs, and a supply vacuum opened up in the poorer states of Africa and Central Asia. Bout saw his opportunity.

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Starting off with a few planes and a cadre of impoverished ex-Soviet pilots willing to risk their lives for hard currency, Bout built a complex enterprise "out of the dust of the Cold War", says The Washington Post. Widely feared, he often supplied both sides of a conflict, thus prolonging cruel civil wars. His chief boast was that he would do business with anyone who would pay, says The Economist.

One week, he'd be trafficking weapons; the next, "dropping frozen chickens in west Africa". His fleet was also hired by Western governments to supply aid and deliver goods to troops. Bout, a gifted linguist, was adept at setting up fast-changing firms. His pilots flew with pots of washable paint, "ready to daub new identification numbers on the fuselages". Worth an estimated $6bn at his peak, Bout's notoriety eventually caught up with him. When the US put him on a blacklist of illegal traders, he fled his luxury home in South Africa for the safety of Moscow. Given his ability to sniff out risk, it's a mystery why he was suckered into travelling to Thailand. Perhaps he couldn't resist one final fling. "Quiet retirement in Moscow is no way to keep a name in lights."

Dr Evil's ties with Russia and Thailand

Given Bout's close links with the Russian security forces, it's no surprise that Moscow fought hard to stop him appearing in a dock to be portrayed as Dr Evil. Indeed, the question of his extradition is the cause of "a heated row" between the US and Russia. Both sides have been lobbying the Thai government for control of his fate, says The Guardian. It looked, at first, as though the Russians had the upper hand. Last August, a Thai court ruled that Bout should not be extradited to the US "because FARC was not a terrorist group, but a political one". A Bangkok appeal court has now overturned that decision.

This latest decision is "a considerable victory for the US and an embarrassment for Moscow", says The Independent. The Americans pulled out all the stops to get it: summoning the Thai ambassador to the State Department to "emphasise how important this judgement is". Russia has reacted with anger, slamming the move as "unlawful and political".

Bout, meanwhile, continues to deny any wrongdoing, claiming he was simply "running an air freight business" and has been caught "in an American mousetrap".

As well as souring the delicate relations between America and Russia, Bout's trial could prove embarrassing for many governments, says The New York Times. He claims, for instance, to have been part of a deal to provide Thailand with nuclear submarines at the behest of its royal family. The trial should also provide some fascinating glimpses into the psyche of this "puzzling, amoral, intelligent man", says The Economist.

Shortly before his final trip to Thailand, Bout was introduced to a British academic at a Moscow party. The latter, apparently impressed with the "ironic twinkle" in his eyes, concluded: "He is one of the most engaging merchants of death I have come across".