Belgian authorities are investigating a Russian arms dealer suspected of running guns to al Qaeda and the Taliban and have arrested the dealer’s associate, officials told The Associated Press (AP).
Belgian officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they expected an international arrest warrant would be issued soon for Victor Bout, who has also been named in U.N. reports as a prominent supplier of weapons to rebel groups in Africa, the AP reported.
Peter Hain, Britain’s minister for European affairs, has played a leading role in international efforts to clamp down on gunrunning to African rebels, the AP reported. He called Bout a “merchant of death.”
“Bout undoubtedly did supply al Qaeda and the Taliban with arms,” Hain told The Associated Press.
On Feb. 7, Belgian police arrested an associate of Bout’s, Kenyan businessman Sanjivan Ruprah, on charges of criminal association and holding a false passport, the AP reported.
The public prosecutor’s office declined to comment on the case, but officials said Ruprah was being investigated for money laundering allegations, 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 and calls to Ruprah’s Brussels home went unanswered Tuesday.
In an interview with the AP, Hain said “both Bout and Ruprah were among the leading merchants of death.” He said Ruprah was involved in supplying diamonds to pay for arms sent to Sierra Leone and Liberia.
Belgian officials said Bout’s cargo planes once operated out of Ostend airport in western Belgium, but there was no evidence that illicit arms passed through the country, the AP reported.
Bout pulled out of Ostend in 1997, and a report presented to the U.N. Security Council in January 2001 said his planes operate mainly out of the United Arab Emirates, the AP reported. The report detailed arms shipments from eastern Europe to Liberia and also said Bout had supplied arms to rebels in Angola and Congo in defiance of U.N. embargoes.
Belgian officials said they believe Bout now lives in Russia, the AP reported.
Lee S. Wolosky, an expert on terrorist financing and international crime at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the AP that Ruprah’s arrest in Brussels was a blow to “one of the largest arms trafficking organizations.”
Bout and Ruprah were both placed on a U.N. list of individuals banned from international travel because of suspected support for Sierra Leone rebels, who were blamed for atrocities in the West African nation’s decade-long civil war before a 2000 cease-fire.
Two other men, whose nationalities were not revealed, have also been arrested in the case, Belgian officials told the AP.
Belgium has stepped up efforts to clamp down on illegal trading since a U.N. report two years ago blamed lax controls at the city of Antwerp-the world’s largest diamond trading center-for fueling trade in so-called “blood diamonds” used to finance African wars.