Global Policy Forum

The Trafficker Viktor Bout Lands


By Jean-Philippe Rémy

Le Monde
May 18, 2004

Here is a man about to be rendered an undreamed of benefit by virtue of the American army's problems in Iraq. Viktor Bout, former Russian military man converted into arms trafficker specialized in the sale of former Soviet block military stocks to warring countries under embargo, was to escape punishment from international justice no longer.

Following a series of investigations conducted by the United Nations and a number of countries, including Belgium, one of the planet's biggest "merchants of death", who holds passports from five countries and shelters his identity, like that of his companies, under a stream of pseudonyms, had ended up becoming the target of UN sanctions, being all the while the subject of an international arrest warrant. Since 2001, he was forced to put his activities to sleep to get "on the right side" in Moscow, where, according to one of the Belgian investigators who have tried to arrest him several times, he has access to "powerful support".

Now, Viktor Bout seems to be back at work in Iraq. According to several sources, his planes, flying under the name of an airline company, British Gulf, likely to disappear as fast as it was created, are assuring "transport of materiel" for the American army. The company's advantage, one specialist in arms trafficking reveals, relates to the nature of the Russian merchant's crews and planes: "They're accustomed to land in any kind of war zone without having a fit. And if one of their planes is shot down, there's no risk of American pilots' bodies being dragged through the streets."

As the price for his services, Viktor Bout is about to receive a kind of amnesty that will allow him to resume his large scale activities. During the 1990s one of the arms merchant's clients and business partners was Charles Taylor. The former rebel, whose men are implicated in crimes against humanity in Liberia and in Sierra Leone, came to power thanks to the Viktor Bout's weapons before he was forced into exile in 2003.

By virtue of his participation in the Liberian drama and his violation of the embargo that prohibited arms exports there, Viktor Bout was up till now subject to two types of United Nations sanctions, prohibiting him from foreign travel and planning a freeze of his foreign assets. Now Viktor Bout's situation is about to change. Although the United States, involved in the Liberian dossier, had committed to make sure those responsible for the atrocities committed during the country's civil war were punished and promised a reward for whoever should deliver Charles Taylor to international justice, it "is working to erase the name of the arms merchant from the list of people subject to sanctions," a diplomatic source asserts.

The circumstances are favorable. Since Charles Taylor's departure for exile in Nigeria in 2003, these lists have, logically, been in the course of revision. On the question of the freezing of foreign assets, several countries, such as France, Great Britain, and the United States, are presently submitting their own documents, while they wait for a Security Council vote. According to one diplomatic source, it's by virtue of this "tidying up" that Viktor Bout's name disappeared from the British list submitted in April, although it was still at the head of that list in January's version. According to this same source, who corroborates the information that has appeared in the Financial Times, the initiative came from the United States, which put pressure on London to obtain this clemency.

As for the French list - on which Mr. Bout's name still figures -, it has been "rejected", even if "the affair is still being discussed in New York", a British source who describes the issue as "sensitive", complains that "leaks" should have occurred with regard to this issue. "It was inevitable," comments a specialist. "This decision has not made everyone in London happy. Some officials, like those who wanted to see Viktor Bout judged by the International Criminal Court will make a scandal out of it."

During the last decade, Viktor Bout has had time to iron out the initial problems of his system and to look for support on all sides. His businesses started in 1993, when this former student at the Institute for Military Interpreters in Moscow who speaks - in addition to the Russian and the Uzbek he inherited from his birth in Tashkent - English, French, and Portuguese, bought some cut-price airplanes: several Antonov, an Iliouchine, and a helicopter. His specialty then consisted of flying this fleet -which counted up to sixty vehicles - under different flags of convenience, bypassing borders, rules, and embargos, and developing a flourishing triangular commerce.

At one end of the chain, he exports weapons from the former Soviet bloc to Africa or Afghanistan. He's paid cash on the spot, or in kind in the natural resources of a region, which he takes care of transporting also. His area of activities in Africa cuts through the region of war exploitation of diamonds and other precious minerals. One of the investigators who participated for years in the tracking down of the one he finally calls "Viktor", has followed his instructive traces all the way to Afghanistan. Originally a supplier to the Kabul government while it was at war against the Taliban, the arms merchant soon managed to equip the theology students also.

After September 11, Viktor Bout was suspected of having furnished weapons to bin Laden, who was then sheltered by the Taliban. That didn't stop the United States, according to a source from the Belgian secret service, from entrusting him with arms shipments to the Northern Alliance, then at war against the Taliban. Since then, he had reappeared in Somalia at the head of a new airline and weapons supply company. Iraq at this rate is just one more episode. "That's the problem with Viktor, he always has some authority that protects him, because he does too many favors," the investigator sighs.

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