NEW YORK (CNN) -- For years, Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout made millions of dollars delivering weapons and ammunition to warlords and militants, officials say.
On Thursday, Bout and his associate, Andrew Smulian, were arrested in Thailand after a series of events that officials said could have come straight out of a spy novel.
The men's capture involved law enforcement agencies from at least five countries, including two undercover agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration posing as Colombian rebels.
Bout and Smulian are accused of conspiracy to provide surface-to-air missiles and other weapons to Colombian rebels, said Michael Garcia, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York.
The U.S. Department of State designated the group as a foreign terrorist organization in 2003.
"This marks the end of the reign of one of the world's most-wanted arms traffickers," Garcia said of Bout.
"Someone will undoubtedly write a book about this case someday, and I can tell you that it will read like the very best work of Tom Clancy, only in this case, it won't be fiction," said Michael Braun, assistant administrator and chief of operations for the DEA.
The operation began in January, when Smulian began meeting with two men who claimed to represent FARC but who were actually confidential sources working for the DEA.
The men expressed interest in buying millions of dollars worth of weapons.
At meetings in the Netherlands Antilles, Denmark and Romania, Smulian discussed the details and logistics of the arms deal with the two agents. At one meeting, the agents were given a digital memory stick containing an article about Bout and documents containing photos and specifications for 100 surface-to-air missiles and armor-piercing rocket launchers.
Smulian explained that a delivery system was in place that would allow the weapons to be air-dropped into Colombia, and he told the men that it would cost $5 million to transport the weapons.
During one meeting, Smulian introduced the DEA sources to Bout over the phone.
After that conversation, Smulian told one of the sources that the weapons were ready in Bulgaria. Smulian and Bout set up a face-to-face meeting with them to finalize the deal, and that is what happened Thursday.
The arrests were made Thursday afternoon.
The charges against Bout and Smulian cover the period from November through February, according to a written statement from the U.S. attorney's office and the DEA.
The United States plans to pursue the extradition of Bout from Thailand, the statement said. There was no mention of Smulian's fate.
Bout and Smulian are charged with conspiracy to provide material support or resources to a designated foreign terrorist organization. If convicted, each could get a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison, the statement said.
'I'm not a diamond guy'
Intelligence agencies around the world have tracked Bout for years. Although some of his work has been legitimate, most has not.
He has made deliveries to Africa, Asia and the Mideast using obsolete or surplus Soviet-era cargo planes.
Bout, a former Soviet air force officer who speaks multiple languages, has what is reputed to be the largest private fleet of Soviet-era cargo aircraft in the world, according to U.S. officials.
He acquired the planes shortly after the breakup of the Soviet Union, the U.S. Department of the Treasury said in 2005.
At that time, the U.S. Treasury announced that it was freezing the assets of Bout and his associates, who are all tied to former Liberian President Charles Taylor.
Taylor is being tried on war crimes charges by the Special Court for Sierra Leone.
Intelligence officials said Bout shipped large quantities of small arms to civil wars across Africa and Asia, often taking diamonds in payment from West African fighters.
A 2006 article in Foreign Policy magazine said that although Bout served many third-world leaders, he also aided organizations such as the United Nations.
"He made countless trips for the United Nations into the same areas where he supplied the weapons that sparked the humanitarian crises in the first place," the article charged. It said Bout probably committed multiple violations of U.N. arms embargoes.
And the U.S. government said it received information that Bout profited $50 million from supplying the Taliban with military equipment when they ruled Afghanistan.
Bout, who is said to be the inspiration for Nicolas Cage's arms dealer character in the movie "Lord of War," told CNN in 2002 that he never sold arms to the Taliban or al Qaeda. He also denied providing weapons and missile-guidance technology to Iraq.
Bout said that his air transport company is legitimate and that he ferried a variety of cargo to Africa and to Afghanistan since 1992.
He denied that any of it was done illegally or that he was paid in "blood diamonds" from Africa.
"It's a lie," he said. "I never touched diamonds in my life, and I'm not a diamond guy, and I don't want to go into that business."
Some reports at the time claimed that Bout flew into Afghanistan just before September 11, 2001. But Bout told CNN that the last time he was in Afghanistan was 1996 and that he never met terror mastermind Osama bin Laden. E-mail to a friend
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