"Merchant of Death" Nabbed by Feds

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In the "truth is stranger than fiction" category there's this one.

Viktor Bout, legendary arms dealer and global scoundrel, was arrested yesterday in a DEA-sponsored sting operation in Thailand.

It is Bout whom Nicolas Cage modeled his "Yuri Orlov" character after in the (I thought pretty entertaining) "Lord of War" flick released in 2005.

There's an excellent story on the arrest in the Washington Post today, and I've got to tell you, there's something in my Cold War bones that sort of admires the idea of a guy like Bout taking advantage of all the conflict around the world to make a profit. I mean, he supplied both sides of most of these third-world conflicts...

The list of Bout's alleged customers since the early 1990s stretches across at least four continents, with a focus on Africa, Western law enforcement officials and human rights groups say. The Treasury Department accused him of supplying armaments to both the Taliban and its al-Qaeda allies in Afghanistan before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, while also providing weapons to the opposing Northern Alliance.

In Zaire, now known as Congo, Bout allegedly supplied arms to rebels fighting then-dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, turned around and helped Seko flee the country, then flew humanitarian cargo into the devastated nation.

"One of the most fascinating things is his ability not only to supply different sides of a conflict, but to live and tell about it with no one killing him," said Douglas Farah, a former Washington Post reporter and co-author of a 2007 book about Bout, "Merchant of Death."

Other alleged customers over the years have included then-Liberian despot Charles Taylor, Unita rebels in Angola and the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone. Cargo companies connected to Bout were also linked to hundreds of supply flights into Iraq for private contractors and the U.S. military early in the Iraq war. The complaint even states that, in the 1990s, Bout sought to drop "crates and boxes over Chechnya," the site of a bitter secessionist rebellion inside Russia.

The straight-up business panache and rank amorality of the whole thing is downright intriguing. In a voyeuristic way, how many of you secretly wish you could be Bout for just a day?

He promised an immediate delivery of 100 Russian Igla missiles -- a standard item in the Russian army -- plus thousands of assault rifles. For $5 million extra, he agreed to drop the items into the Colombian jungle using several hundred combat parachutes, according to the complaint. Bout also promised, through Smulian, to provide helicopters "that could wipe out" other helicopters, flight training, and armor-piercing rockets, the complaint says.

I mean, agreeing to airdrop rifles and anti-aircraft missiles with hundreds of parachutes to FARC rebels as part of the deal? Brilliant -- and ballsy!

-- Christian

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