By Vladimir IsachenkovAssociated Press
March 1, 2002
A Russian suspected by Belgian authorities of shipping weapons to the al-Qaida terrorist network showed up a few blocks from the Kremlin for a live radio interview Thursday - just as officials were insisting he wasn't in Russia.
Victor Bout, a former Soviet air force officer turned international businessperson, denied that he had been involved in smuggling weapons to al-Qaida. "I have never supplied anything to or had any contacts with the Taliban or al-Qai da," he said on Ek ho Moskvy radio.
"Never in my life have I done anything that would cause me to hide from anyone, nor have I ever had any problems traveling across Russia," said Bout. As he spoke, Interfax carried a report quoting Igor Tsyryulnikov, a spokesperson for Interpol's Russian bureau, as saying that Russian police had searched for Bout for several years. "We can say for sure that Bout is not in Russia," Tsyryulnikov was quoted as saying.
Earlier Thursday, Belgian prosecutors said they recently issued an international arrest warrant for Bout and that they believed he was in Russia. Jos Colpin, spokesperson for the Brussels prosecutor's office, said Belgian authorities had contacted Moscow about the search for Bout after forwarding the warrant two weeks ago.
Tsyryulnikov did not answer telephone calls to his office Thursday night. Russian police made no public comment and officials at the Russian Interior Ministry, which is in charge of the police, could not be reached for comment.
It was unclear where Bout went after the interview with Echo Moskvy, Russia's leading independent radio station. A station employee commented wryly that he did not leave his telephone number.
Bout claimed U.S. security services invented the accusations against him to cover up their own inefficiency.
"They have turned me into a bugbear," Bout said. "It is a good subject for a horror story or a comic, and it raises the question of the efficiency of all these security services ... that failed to avert the Sept. 11" attacks.
Bout, who UN reports have described as a prominent supplier of weapons to rebel groups in Africa, said he has been involved in air transport since 1992 but never dealt in arms. He said he ran cargo flights to Afghanistan.
On Feb. 7, Belgian police arrested an associate of Bout, Kenyan businessperson Sanjivan Ruprah, on charges of criminal association and holding a false passport. Officials said Ruprah was being investigated on suspicion of money laundering, not illegal arms trading.
Ruprah is reportedly providing U.S. authorities with information on weapons transfers to Afghanistan. Belgian officials have declined to comment on those reports.
Peter Hain, Britain's minister for European affairs and a leader in international efforts to clamp down on gunrunning to African rebels, told The Associated Press last week that Bout "undoubtedly" supplied al-Qaida and the Taliban with arms. He called Bout a "merchant of death."
Bout's air cargo empire, built on old Soviet aircraft, violated UN arms embargoes and delivered weapons to rebels in Sierra Leone, Congo, Angola and Rwanda, UN investigators said in a report last year.
His operations were originally based in Belgium, but he moved them to the United Arab Emirates in 1997 under pressure from the United Nations and Belgian law enforcement, the report said.
UN investigators have claimed Bout has at least five passports, but he said Thursday that he has only a Russian one.
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