Thailand to extradite Viktor Bout to US

A Russian man suspected of selling arms to insurgent groups around the world is to be extradited to the United States, a court in Thailand has ruled.

Viktor Bout, 43, is pleading not guilty on US charges of conspiracy to sell arms to Colombian rebels.

Mr Bout - dubbed the Merchant of Death - was detained in a joint Thai-US sting operation in March 2008.

Russia has condemned the decision and said it would work to secure his return.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described the ruling as "unlawful" and said his government believed it was made "under very strong external pressure".

The ministry has summoned Thailand's ambassador to express its "extreme disappointment and bewilderment" at the verdict, the Agence France-Presse news agency reported.

The US said it was "extremely pleased" at the news.

"We have always felt that the facts of the case... clearly supported the extradition of Mr Bout on these charges," acting Deputy US Attorney General Gary Grindler said in a statement.

A Thai court had previously rejected a US request for his extradition, but the US appealed against that ruling.

New ruling

Speaking to reporters in Russian after the verdict, Mr Bout said he would "face the trial in the United States and win it," Russia's RIA Novosti news agency reported.

Mr Bout, a former Soviet air force officer, faces US charges of conspiring to kill Americans, conspiring to provide material support to terrorists and conspiring to acquire and use an anti-aircraft missile.

He could face a maximum penalty of life in prison if convicted in the US.

American authorities lodged two further charges of money-laundering and electronic fraud against Mr Bout before Friday's hearing - if their appeal had been rejected, he would have had to remain in jail pending another decision.

The court gave the authorities three months to deal with them, but it is expected the US will drop this second raft of charges and proceed with the extradition as soon as possible.

"The court has decided to detain him for extradition to the US," said the judge Jitakorn Patanasiri.

The decision had been repeatedly delayed by a high turnover of defence lawyers.

Lawyers for Mr Bout have argued that he will not receive a fair trial in the US, where officials say he supplied arms to warlords, al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

United Nations agencies and several Western governments have reported that Mr Bout has delivered arms to warlords in Africa and Afghanistan, allegedly breaking several UN arms embargoes in the process.

"Viktor is an entrepreneur, a businessman. He's good at what he does," said his lawyer, Lak Nittiwattanawichan.

"Whether or not he's an arms trafficker, you have to prove that in court. I am not personally aware of such activities."

The sting operation that caught Mr Bout involved US officers posing as members of the Farc rebel group of Colombia.

"This is a political case. The Farc is fighting for a political cause and is not a criminal gang. Thailand does not recognise the Farc as a terrorist group," a judge said to explain last year's rejection of the US extradition request.

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