BANGKOK—The Thai government agreed Tuesday to extradite accused Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout to the United States to face terrorism charges, rejecting heavy pressure from Moscow for him to be freed.
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva told reporters after a Cabinet meeting that Bout would be sent as soon as the U.S. is ready to receive him, and even suggested that the suspect might already be on his way.
Abhisit said his Cabinet sided with an earlier appeals court decision that Bout could be extradited.
Bout, a 43-year-old former Soviet air force officer who is reputed to have been one of the world’s most prolific arms dealers, was arrested at a Bangkok luxury hotel in March 2008 as part of a sting operation led by U.S. agents.
The head of a lucrative air transport empire, Bout had long evaded U.N. and U.S. sanctions aimed at blocking his financial activities and restricting his travel. He claims he ran a legitimate business and never sold weapons.
Bout has allegedly supplied weapons that fueled civil wars in South America, the Middle East and Africa, with clients including Liberia’s Charles Taylor and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and both sides in Angola’s civil war.
Tuesday’s action had been preceded by a lengthy legal and diplomatic battle.
Russia had made strong public statements against Bout’s extradition, and privately, both Moscow and Washington were reported to be exerting heavy pressure on Abhisit’s government.
U.S lawmakers also became involved, sending a letter to the Thai government urging extradition.
A Thai court in August of 2009 originally rejected Washington’s request for Bout’s extradition on terrorism-related charges. After that ruling was reversed by an appeals court in August this year, the U.S. moved to get him out quickly, sending a special plane to stand by.
However, just ahead of the appeals court ruling, the United States forwarded new money-laundering and wire fraud charges to Thailand in an attempt to keep Bout detained if the court ordered his release. But the move backfired by requiring a hearing on the new charges. Those were dismissed in early October.
Russia says Bout is an innocent businessman and wants him in Moscow. Experts say Bout has knowledge of Russia’s military and intelligence operations and that Moscow does not want him going on trial in the United States.