BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand extradited on Tuesday suspected Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout to the United States to face terrorism charges, ending a two-year wrangle between the former Cold War foes.
The 43-year-old former Soviet air force officer, dubbed the “Merchant of Death,” was flown out of Bangkok on a small, chartered U.S. aircraft shortly after Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his cabinet cleared the extradition.
Bout had been fighting extradition since his March 2008 arrest in Bangkok in a U.S.-led sting operation.
In a surprise move, the Thai cabinet officially acknowledged the U.S. extradition request, clearing the last hurdle for Bout’s departure to face trial in a U.S. court.
Russia said Thailand’s extradition of Bout to the United States was illegal.
“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,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
The ministry said earlier Bout faced a politically motivated extradition that could undermine strengthening U.S.-Russian ties and undo the White House’s efforts to “reset” relations.
A U.S. embassy spokesman declined to comment on the case.
Bout faces U.S. accusations of trafficking arms since the 1990s to dictators and conflict zones in Africa, South America and the Middle East.
Dozens of policemen and masked commandos guarded the entrance of Bangkok’s maximum-security Bangkwang prison where Bout had been detained.
He was taken from prison in a speeding van with darkened windows, escorted by several security vehicles.
A court had cleared the way for Bout’s extradition but the executive branch could have blocked it if it had been deemed detrimental to foreign relations or harmful to the individuals involved.
Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said he did not think relations with Russia would worsen, adding that Thailand had been in touch with both countries to explain the legal process.
“Our job was to decide and do what was right. It’s not possible to please everyone,” Abhisit told reporters.
“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 had been informed his client had been sent to the United States and he would continue to fight the case. The cabinet’s decision was a violation of “due process” as 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.
Bout, an inspiration for the Hollywood movie, “Lord of War,” starring Nicholas Cage, 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 U.S. classifies the Colombian group as a terrorist organization.