Arms dealer Viktor Bout was the merchant of death
wanted for feeding conflicts in Africa – until Iraq happened.
Today the United States and Britain are using his extensive mercenary services
in Iraq. The condemnation of his role in the diamond
wars and other conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa over the past ten years is
being silently erased.
Bout would be an embarrassing ally to acknowledge publicly. But the coalition
partners are showing him exceptional favors as he does some of their job for
The UN Security Council drafted a resolution in March to freeze the assets
of mercenaries and weapons dealers who backed ousted Liberian dictator Charles Taylor.
Bout should top that list, French diplomatic sources say. But the diplomats
and UN sources say the United States has been working to keep Bout off that
U.S. officials have indicated unofficially that the reason is that Bout is
useful in Iraq, the sources told IPS.
One of Bout's many companies is providing logistical support to US forces in
Iraq, well-placed French diplomatic sources say. His private airline British
Gulf is supplying goods to the occupation forces, they say.
In recognition of these services, both the US and the British governments have
been opposing French efforts to include Bout in the UN mercenaries list, the
diplomatic sources revealed.
"We are disgusted that Bout won't be on the list, even though he is the principal
arms dealer," according to a diplomat involved in the UN negotiations over that
list. "If we want peace in that region (West Africa), it seems evident that
Bout should be on that list."
The British government had at first included Bout in its list of mercenaries,
French diplomats say. But he was taken off under US pressure.
In 2000 Peter Hain, then British foreign office minister responsible for Africa,
described Bout as "the chief sanctions-buster, and ... a merchant of death who
owns air companies that ferry in arms" for rebels in Angola and Sierra Leone.
Now Iraq has become another business location for Bout with no particular risks
attached despite the UN efforts to seize him, French diplomatic sources say.
Typically, Bout has left few traces of his activities in Iraq. French officials
say British Gulf is soon expected to go under another name now that it is known
to be his. His mercenaries leave few footprints, and if they die, nobody asks
questions about the body bag.
But the UN knows what Bout is about through his activities in Africa. "Viktor
Vasilevich Butt, known more commonly as Viktor Bout, is often referred to in
law enforcement circles as 'Viktor B' because he uses at least five aliases
and different versions of his last name," says a UN Security Council report.
The stocky Bout, 37, graduated from the Military Institute of Foreign Languages
in Moscow. He is said to be fluent in at least six languages. He began his career
as an arms dealer in Afghanistan after his air force regiment was disbanded
during the break-up of the former Soviet Union.
According to intelligence documents, he was able to establish close relationships
with several African heads of state and rebel leaders including the late Angolan
rebel leader Jonas
Savimbi, former Liberian president Charles Taylor, former Zairian president
Mobutu Sese Seko and
Libyan President Moammar Gadhafi.
"He had access to what the African warlords wanted," says André Velrooy, a
Norwegian journalist who investigated Bout's activities for the International
Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). "The end of the Cold War resulted
in a massive amount of surplus weapons and spare parts being dumped at often
very low prices onto the private market."
Bout had the capacity to deliver not only small arms, but also major weapons
systems, and deliver them almost anywhere in the world, Velrooy reported. "And
his associates – ranging from former US military personnel and Russian officials
to African heads of state and organized crime figures – gave him a lengthy list
of buyers and sellers with whom to do business."
Bout was the biggest operator in the African arms market. He ran a myriad of
companies employing an estimated 300 people. The companies operated 40 to 60
aircraft, including the world's largest private fleet of Russian-made Antonov
cargo planes, according to the investigation by ICIJ.
Bout made it almost impossible to trace his activities. He leased aircraft
to other individuals and companies so that he could not directly be linked to
illegal activities. "Bout adamantly denies that he was involved in weapons trafficking,
or that he was anything other than a legitimate air cargo entrepreneur," says
But UN monitors too have accused Bout of shipping contraband weapons to rebel
movements in Angola and Sierra Leone and to the Taylor regime in Liberia.
The United States and Britain are now using – and protecting – a dealer who is
also reported to have helped arm the Taliban.
Germany's Der Spiegel newsweekly reported in 2002 that Vadim Rabinovich,
an Israeli of Ukrainian origin, along with the former director of the Ukrainian
secret service, had sold a consignment of 150 to 200 T-55 and T-62 tanks to
The tanks were believed to have been transported by one of Bout's air freight
companies in a deal conducted through Pakistan's secret service. The deal was
uncovered by the Russian foreign intelligence service SVR in Kabul, Der Spiegel
The UN backed an international warrant in 2001 for the arrest of Bout. But
Bout enjoys support in high places and has been living comfortably in Moscow.
"That's the problem in dealing with Viktor B," the French daily Le Monde
quoted a French secret service expert as saying. "Because Bout has served so
many people, he always has somebody powerful who protects him."
(Inter Press Service)