By Steve ParkWashington Times
July 23, 2002
In the secretive and publicity-shy world of private arms merchants, former Russian military officer Victor Bout stands out as an exception. Prior to September 11, his name surfaced in reports by the United Nations and U.S. State Department as the key supplier of arms to guerrilla armies involved in nearly a dozen wars in Africa.
"Viktor Vasilevich Butt, known more commonly as Viktor Bout, is often referred to in law enforcement circles as `Victor B` because he uses at least five aliases and different versions of his last name," said one U.N. Security Council report
The report finds Mr. Bout in violation of international arms embargoes, calling him a supplier of arms to guerrillas in Africa and claiming that he delivers the goods using his own fleet of more than 50 planes.
A State Department report says Mr. Bout also recruits East European mercenaries for African clients.
Mr. Bout`s profile soared after September 11 with dozens of newspaper, magazine and television reports naming Mr. Bout as a supplier of arms to Afghanistan`s Taliban rulers and possibly al Qaeda terrorists.
The Seattle Times reported in February that U.S. and European officials had gathered intelligence in Afghanistan and elsewhere suggesting that Mr. Bout was flying weapons into Afghanistan in the months before September 11.
Germany`s Der Spiegel newsweekly reported in January this year that Vadim Rabinovich, an Israeli of Ukrainian origin, along with the former director of the Ukrainian secret service and his son, had sold a consignment of 150 to 200 T-55 and T-62 tanks to the Taliban.
The weapons were believed to have been transported by one of Mr. Bout`s air freight companies in a deal conducted through Pakistan`s secret service and uncovered by the Russian foreign intelligence service, SVR, in Kabul, Der Spiegel reported.
A spokesman at the Pakistani Embassy in Washington denied that Pakistan helped Mr. Bout sell or transport weapons to the Taliban. "The Pakistani government does not interact with private individuals [in military-supply matters] including Victor Bout," the spokesman said. The spokesman also insisted that Pakistan had abided by the U.N. arms embargo imposed in December 2000 on then Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
The search engine www.google.com, sifting Internet sites for the words "Victor Bout," locates page after page of reports from prominent news organizations since September 11. The articles prompted Mr. Bout to deny publicly any link to the arms trade â€” first in a Feb. 28 interview with Ekho Moskvy radio in Moscow and then by issuing a statement to a Washington-based public-interest group a few days later.
Mr. Bout apparently went to the radio station in person and gave a live interview. At about the same time, Igor Tsyryulnikov, a spokesman for the Russian section of Interpol, was telling reporters at a Moscow press conference that Mr. Bout was not in Russia, The New York Times reported.
In a subsequent statement to the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity, Mr. Bout claimed to be the victim of a "relentless frenzy by certain media and news organizations." "I am a father, a husband, a friend, and an entrepreneur, who worked hard for everything I had, which has been destroyed due to the impact of these stories," the statement said.
"For the record, I am not, and never have been, associated with al Qaeda, the Taliban or any of their officials, officers, or related organizations. I am not, nor are any of my organizations, associated with arms traffickers and/or trafficking or the sale of arms of any kind anywhere in the world."
Private merchants selling arms to anyone able to pay are not a new phenomenon. Many governments use arms entrepreneurs to further their interests. In 1776, America`s Founding Fathers received help from French arms broker Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, who secretly supplied weapons from France under orders from King Louis XVI. The Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s â€” in which White House aides secretly sold arms to Iran for cash to buy arms for Nicaraguan rebels â€” involved several private entrepreneurs and U.S. government officials.
But the end of the Cold War opened up new frontiers for the private arms industry, as state-to-state arms sales plunged from $4.3 billion in 1988 to $270 million in 1995, according to the State Department report. At the same time, the outbreak of at least 11 wars in Africa created a lucrative opportunity for private arms brokers and dealers, the report says.
Though no agency keeps reliable or comprehensive statistics on legal and illegal arms sales, State Department analysts believe that hundreds of millions of dollars change hands each year in non-governmental arms sales.
Some of the trade involves the so-called "gray market," in which the transactions are legal. Much of it, however, is considered "black market" because it violates international arms embargoes.
Researchers for Oxfam International, a European aid group, estimate the African trade in illegal weapons at about $50 million per year, about half the global total.
U.N. reports point to countries formerly in the Soviet Union as the origin of most small arms, citing their abundance of weapons, lax export laws and need for hard currency. A Ukraine parliamentary commission report concluded that one-third of the country`s stock of small arms, valued at $32 billion, was stolen from military warehouses between 1992 and 1998.
In Africa, the trafficking primarily involves light weapons such as AK-47 automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, mortars and land mines. The U.N. report, however, also cites Mr. Bout`s aircraft for transporting attack helicopters, missiles and armored vehicles from Europe to Liberia.
"Point to any major war in Africa and you`ll eventually spot signs of Bout," said Johan Peleman, an arms-trafficking expert with the International Peace Information Service, a private research group based in Antwerp, Belgium. In February, the Belgian government issued an international warrant for Mr. Bout on charges of money laundering.
In March, Belgian police arrested Sanjivan Ruprah of India, believed to be an arms-sales partner of Mr. Bout. Mr. Ruprah is currently cooperating with the U.S. and British law-enforcement and intelligence officials investigating Mr. Bout`s suspected arms dealings with the Taliban.
Denis MacShane, a deputy to British Foreign Minister Jack Straw, also discussed Mr. Bout`s purported dealings with the Taliban during an April question session in Parliament.
"Prior to September 11th, this aircraft had reportedly been frequently overflying Iran from Saudi Arabia to Kabul and Kandahar in Afghanistan," Mr. MacShane said of one of Mr. Bout`s cargo planes. "It is now reportedly parked at Jidda in Saudi Arabia."
So far Mr. Bout has avoided questioning. He is believed to spend some of his time in Russia, but the Russian government says it has not been able to find and talk to him.
Lee Wolosky, an arms specialist with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and a former member of the National Security Council under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, said he was amazed that Russian authorities had not been able to detain Mr. Bout.
"I don`t understand why they would not [cooperate with] a duly authorized Interpol warrant, given that they are a member of the Interpol," Mr. Wolosky said. A spokesman at the Russian Embassy in Washington declined to comment.
Said a former U.S. official: "He just has these tentacles to law enforcement. You can gain influence over law enforcement in Russia, and I would not be surprised if he did."
Kathi Austin of the Washington-based Fund for Peace said the United States has missed too many opportunities to arrest Mr. Bout. "The guy should have been picked up long ago," she said.
But Mr. Wolosky said Washington has no role other than to urge the Russians to arrest Mr. Bout. "Russia should hand him over to Belgium," he said.
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