Friends in High Places: Fugitive Mercenary Makes Good in Iraq

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.

The Tajikistan-born 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 them.

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 list.

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 Velrooy.

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 Taliban.

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 reported.

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.”