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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Suspected Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout arrived in New York from Thailand on Tuesday to face U.S. terrorism charges, the Justice Department said.
The 43-year-old former Soviet air force officer, dubbed the "Merchant of Death," faces U.S. accusations of trafficking arms since the 1990s to dictators and conflict zones in Africa, South America and the Middle East.
Bout was flown from Bangkok to an airport near New York City on a small chartered U.S. aircraft, the Justice Department said.
"Viktor Bout has been indicted in the United States, but his alleged arms trafficking activity and support of armed conflicts in Africa has been a cause of concern around the world. His extradition is a victory for the rule of law worldwide," Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement.
"Long considered one of the world's most prolific arms traffickers, Mr. Bout will now appear in federal court in Manhattan to answer to charges of conspiring to sell millions of dollars worth of weapons to a terrorist organization for use in trying to kill Americans," Holder said.
Bout had been fighting extradition since he was arrested in Bangkok in March 2008 in a U.S.-led sting operation. Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva cleared the extradition, despite Russia saying it was illegal and could undermine U.S.-Russian ties.
Russia's Foreign Ministry has described Bout's extradition as politically motivated and said that it could undermine strengthening U.S.-Russian ties and undo President Barack Obama's efforts to "reset" strained relations.
"It is deeply regrettable that the Thai authorities have yielded to political pressure from outside and carried out this illegal extradition of V.A. Bout," the ministry said in a statement on Tuesday.
The State Department, which pushed for Bout's extradition, said it was confident there would be no effect on ties.
"Bout is really the bin Laden of the clandestine arms trade," said a U.S. government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the case involves classified information.
A Thai court cleared the way for Bout's extradition, but the government could have blocked it if it had been deemed detrimental to foreign relations or harmful to the individuals involved.
Abhisit said he did not think relations with Russia would worsen, adding that Thailand had explained the legal process to Russia and the United States.
"Our job was to decide and do what was right. It's not possible to please everyone," Abhisit said. "The cabinet decision was based on the court ruling that the case was not political and that there was no reason not to extradite him."
Bout's lawyer said he would continue to fight the case. The Thai cabinet's decision was a violation of "due process" because a request for a retrial for Bout was pending, he said.
Bout, who has long evaded U.N. and U.S. sanctions aimed at blocking his finances and restricting his travels, had called the charges against him an "American fantasy," insisting he was an innocent businessman.
An inspiration for the Hollywood movie "Lord of War" starring Nicholas Cage, Bout had been held in prison since his arrest at a luxury Bangkok hotel in a joint U.S.-Thai sting operation in which agents posed as arms buyers for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
The United States classifies the Colombian group as a terrorist organization.
Additional reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat and Chaiwat Subprasom, Guy Faulconbridge in Moscow, and Andrew Quinn and David Morgan in Washington; writing by Michelle Nichols; editing by Edith Honan and Mohammad Zargham