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When CNN met 'Lord of War'

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  • Viktor Bout accused of conspiring to sell weapons to Colombian rebels
  • Russian is said to have inspired Nicolas Cage role in movie "Lord of War"
  • In 2002 Bout agreed to give interview to CNN, to set record straight
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By CNN's Jill Dougherty
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Jill Dougherty is CNN's U.S. Affairs Editor. For nine years, she was based in Moscow as bureau chief and correspondent, and has worked extensively across the former Soviet Union. Here she tells how she met alleged international arms dealer Viktor Bout, widely acknowledged as the inspiration for the character played by Nicholas Cage in the 2005 movie "Lord of War."

(CNN) -- Reputed arms dealer Viktor Bout was one of those names in Moscow -- we had heard of him off and on for a while, and had heard of his reputation in the shady underworld of illegal arms deals -- but it was a mystery as to where he was.

We knew he was living somewhere in Moscow and that someone was making it possible for him to avoid arrest after an international arrest warrant had been issued.

Suddenly, in February, 2002, the news radio station, Echo Moscow, announced that Bout would be a guest the next day.

Of course, we had to go to the studio and find out if this man who had spent so long avoiding the media would talk to us at CNN also.

He was very wary of the media and had given few interviews before turning up at Echo Moscow but, surprisingly, he agreed.

He arrived at our studio --an 11th floor office in Moscow -- with a bodyguard and a female aide having traveled up in a rickety Soviet-style elevator that fits about four people.

He was tall, heavy set, a bit rough round the edges, but he acted like a man who has been wronged.

Dressed in a well-cut dark jacket with gold buttons, grey trousers, white shirt and basket-weave patterned silk tie, we began speaking in Russian but, as we were miking him up we spoke in English. His English was quite good. He seemed intelligent, canny; serious but nervous.

I was nervous also because I thought he would be a dangerous type, with strange connections to underground figures. But he wanted to get his message out so I didn't think he would do me any harm.

The interview itself last about 30 minutes. We sat in our office in front of a wall covered with a blow-up picture of Red Square. We gave him a glass of water which he hardly touched.

Everything I asked him -- did he sell arms to the Taliban, to al Qaeda? Did he supply rebels in Africa and get paid in blood diamonds? -- he denied.

"It's a false allegation and it's a lie," he said. "I've never touched diamonds in my life and I'm not a diamond guy and I don't want that business."

He told me he was here to set the record straight and looked at this interview as a way to clear his name.

"I'm not afraid. I didn't do anything in my life what I should be afraid of. And all this looks to me like a witch hunt. Look, I'm coming to your office, I have no problem. And I said, hey, who's looking for me? I'm here. I'm not hiding from nobody. And I don't want this story going on".

I asked him if he had ever met Osama Bin Laden. No, he told me, but if he had, he might have been able to prevent the 9/11 attacks.

"Unfortunately I didn't have a chance to meet him," he told me. "Maybe if I were to meet him, in this position, to meet him somewhere, maybe on that period (he chuckled) I would decide to do something to prevent -- for what happened. [But] I never met him."

Overall Bout impressed me as the type of Russian businessman I know well. Born to do deals, ready to sell anything to make a buck (Russians use that word "buck" like Americans to mean money.)

He speaks six languages and I could see him bargaining in all six at the same time.

When our interview was over I accompanied him to the elevator and asked if we could follow him to take some pictures.

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The answer was no.

And then, slipping into a navy blue wool overcoat, he was back in the elevator and heading downstairs to his black, shiny western car and his chauffeur. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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