Pentagon fears Viktor Bout, the so-called 'Merchant of Death' the US swapped for Brittney Griner, could restart his old arms business
Convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout was released from US custody on Thursday.
He gained notoriety during the 1990s for fueling deadly conflicts in various African countries.
The Pentagon is concerned that with his release, he could return to his old business.
Not long after Viktor Bout was released from US custody on Thursday in exchange for Brittney Griner's release from Russia, the Pentagon expressed concerns that the convicted Russian arms dealer could restart his old business.
"I think there is a concern that he would return to doing the same kind of work that he's done in the past," a senior defense officials told reporters at a Thursday briefing.
Bout, who has earned the nickname "Merchant of Death," became a prominent international arms dealer during the 1990s and is believed to have done business — and fueled conflicts — in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Angola, Liberia, Rwanda, and Afghanistan.
A 2008 US sting operation led to his arrest in Thailand, and he was convicted in a Manhattan court three years later of engaging in a plot to kill Americans, conspiring to provide support to a terrorist organization, and assuring that he would supply extremists with anti-aircraft missiles.
Not even halfway through Bout's 25-year-long sentence — during which the Kremlin repeatedly pushed hard to set him free — the 55-year-old was included in the one-for-one prisoner swap with the WNBA's Griner, who has spent the last 10 months in Russian captivity. Now, US officials worry the arms dealer could return to fueling deadly conflicts around the world.
The senior defense official told reporters that with the news of Bout's release, people in Africa who had spent years working to curb his influence there probably felt some "disappointment inside."
When asked by a reporter why the official chose to use the word "disappointment," they said vaguely that people occasionally have "deliberate intentions" that don't always favor the Pentagon's African partners, adding that the US wants to ensure African countries are aware of the long-term implications.
"And for this particular person, I think their — their history and intentions on the — on the continent have always been a bit questionable," the official said, a nod to the armed struggles that Bout has helped influence in countries throughout Africa.
The official declined to elaborate on the status or activity of Bout's network, adding that they can't comment on his weapons trafficking activities either. The official said the priority is making sure US partners have the necessary "tools" to address their individual security challenges and making sure there is strong weapons training and accountability.
Bout's swap for Griner on Thursday, which was made in part through mediation from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and took place at an Abu Dhabi airport, has drawn some condemnation and concerns from some US lawmakers.
GOP Sen. Jim Risch, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member, said on Twitter that "the decision to release #ViktorBout less than a week before the US-Africa Leaders Summit sends a disastrous message about the value of African lives. Bout fueled widespread death & destruction by arming UN-sanctioned regimes & groups in the #DRC, #Liberia, #SierraLeone, & beyond."
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