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    Southeast Asia
     Aug 31, 2010
Why the US really wants Bout
By Bertil Lintner

BANGKOK - While Bangkok-based observers weigh the legal merits of extraditing alleged Russian gunrunner Viktor Bout to the United States, a far more important issue seems to have eluded the media: why is Washington so eager to get its hands on Bout and why is Moscow doing everything in its power to prevent that from happening?

Bout was caught in a sting operation in Bangkok in March 2008 when US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents, posing as representatives of the Colombian narco-rebel movement Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), claimed that they wanted to buy a large consignment of weapons from him.

Notably there had been no other reports of Bout's alleged involvement in the international arms trade since he reportedly

 

flew weapons from a base in the Middle East to virtually every conflict zone in Africa during the 1990s and early 2000s. Russia claims that he is innocent of the charges, insisting that he is just an ordinary businessman.

Underscoring that official claim, Vladimir Kozin, deputy director of the information and press department at Russia's Foreign Ministry, wrote in the Moscow Times on August 26 that Washington's attempts to extradite Bout "may inevitably affect Russian-US relations to the detriment of the US effort to 'reset' them".

So why then all the geopolitical fuss over Bout? One plausible answer was ventured in another recent Moscow Times opinion piece by Yulia Latynina, host of a political talk show on Russia's Ekho Moskvy radio station. She pointed out that Bout served in Mozambique in the 1980s, along with a man named Igor Sechin, who today serves as Russia's deputy prime minister and who is widely considered the second-most-important person in that country after Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. The op-ed article was headlined "Bout, Sechin and a Political Firestorm".

According to a court statement by DEA special agent Robert Zachariasiewicz, undercover agents in Bangkok were told that Bout had 100 Russian-made Igla surface-to-air missiles available immediately. The DEA agents had advised Bout that they needed anti-aircraft weapons to kill American pilots on anti-drug missions in Colombia.

According to the same court documents submitted by the DEA, "Bout indicated that he could supply the FARC with 700 to 800 surface-to-air missiles, 5,000 AK-47 firearms, millions of rounds of ammunition, various Russian spare parts for rifles, anti-personnel mines and C-4 explosives, night-vision equipment, 'ultralight' airplanes, which could be outfitted with grenade launchers and missiles, and unmanned aerial vehicles, which have a range of 200 to 300 kilometers."

Latynina wrote in her article: "The delivery of 100 Russian anti-aircraft missiles appears to be a government-sponsored program ... it is frightening to consider what Bout could tell US authorities about who promised to provide him with [those] 100 Russian anti-aircraft weapons."

Sechin is seven years older than Bout, and they both are linguists fluent in Portuguese and French. Bout served under Sechin in the 1980s in Portuguese-speaking Mozambique, when, officially, Sechin was an interpreter with the then Soviet trade and diplomatic mission there. However, according to http://rt.com website, "Some consider this to be the beginning of [Sechin's] career at the KGB. He was allegedly the USSR's point man for weapons smuggling to Latin America and the Middle East."

Douglas Farah, author of a controversial biography about Bout, pointed out in a Foreign Policy article on August 20: "[Bout's] knowledge base, although he is only 43 years old, goes back more than two decades and possibly extends to the heart of the Russian campaigns around the globe."

If accurate, it could go a long way toward explaining why Russia doesn't want to see him extradited to the US. And that may be what Washington wants more than just to bust Bout for alleged gunrunning. Some suggest a plea-bargain could be offered by the US whereby Bout would be treated leniently if he is found guilty in exchange for sharing what he may know about any possible Russian clandestine arms dealings.

Death merchants
Bout is not the only alleged global arms dealer in the US's sights. Syrian millionaire and alleged arms dealer Monzer al-Kassar was arrested in Spain in 2007 in a similar sting operation organized by US authorities. He had also been indicted on charges of seeking to sell weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, to FARC. After a year of legal wrangling, al-Kassar was eventually extradited to the US.

In September 2006, Indonesian arms dealer Hadja Subandi and a group of Sri Lankan and Singaporean associates were arrested in a sting on the Pacific Island of Guam, a US territory. They were accused of trying to sell US$900,000 worth of surface-to-air missiles and other sophisticated weaponry to the Sri Lankan separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam rebel group.

It has been clear for more than a decade that Western security services have been concerned over the proliferation of man-portable air defense systems, or MANPADS, including the shoulder-launched Igla surface-to-air missiles Bout was allegedly trying to sell to the FARC. The US has been more active than any other country in trying to secure stocks of these missiles, persuading governments to destroy obsolescent stocks while cracking down on arms merchants dealing in them and identifying the actual suppliers of such weapons.

"When you have al-Kassar in 2007 and Viktor Bout in 2008 caught in strikingly similar sting operations, a pattern clearly emerges,” says Anthony Davis, a security analyst with IHS-Jane's, a military information group. That pattern is precisely why the US is on a collision course with Russia, where many surface-to-air missiles are manufactured and from where they later somehow find their way onto black markets. China is another, even more important, source of surface-to-air missiles and other sophisticated weaponry that is bought and sold on underground international markets.

Bout was in prison in Bangkok when Thailand was shaken by another incident involving Russian arms traders. A Russian-made Il-76 was impounded on December 12, 2009, in Bangkok with 35 tonnes of weapons on board. The plane had flown from North Korea and was on its way to Iran, and according to Latynina the shipment was allegedly "owned by a firm controlled by Bout".

Bout could not possibly have organized arms shipments to anywhere while in prison. However, Latynina traced the ownership of the plane to Air West Georgia, which does have its registered address in the former Soviet republic of Georgia but whose actual location is at Vnukovo Airport in Moscow. According to Latynina, Air West is also listed in the business directory Gde24.ru as being located "near the Okhotny Road metro station and just a stone's throw from the Kremlin and the headquarters of [the KGB's successor agency] the Federal Security Service on Lubyanskaya Ploshchad."

It is unlikely, however, that the ultimate destination for the Russian-organized arms shipment from North Korea was Iran, which has its own arsenal of relatively small weapons similar to those on the Il-76 plane. Iran has for years armed the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon with weapons through its Syrian allies. That Russian-made weapons may end up in the hands of Islamic extremist groups is for the US a far more serious security concern than deliveries to Columbia's FARC. The North Korean shipment is reported to have included MANPADS of unknown origin.

According to security analyst Davis, the US and others are especially worried about the black-market proliferation of Russia's 9K38 Igla, which the US Department of Defense designates as SA-18, an improved version of the simpler 9K310 Igla-1, or SA-16 Gimlet. It is uncertain which kind of Igla Bout was allegedly trying to sell to the undercover DEA agents in Bangkok, but the SA-18, according to Davis, is capable of avoiding counter weapons carried on targeted aircraft.

If Hezbollah could access such weapons, it would be a serious concern for Israel, a close US strategic ally. Even more alarmingly, if the Taliban or al-Qaeda gained access to MANPADS of that degree of sophistication it would raise even greater risks for the US and its allied forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Thus, the main question remains: what does Bout know and would he be willing to talk once he has been extradited to the United States? When this correspondent met Bout in Bangkok's Remand Prison in June 2008, he was fiercely anti-American, spewing anger at the US agents who had seemingly lured him into the trap. Bout is known to be a strong nationalist and he might, if eventually extradited to the US, prefer to be a Russian hero in a US jail than serve as a turncoat source on Russia's clandestine arms business.

Bertil Lintner is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review and the author of Bloodbrothers: Crime, Business and Politics in Asia. He is currently a writer with Asia Pacific Media Services.

(Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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