Bangkok: A suspected Russian arms dealer dubbed the "Merchant of Death" was flown out of Thailand Tuesday to face trial in the United States following a long legal battle and fierce opposition from Moscow.
Escorted by dozens of armed police commandos and with snipers deployed along the route, Viktor Bout was whisked from a maximum security Bangkok prison to a waiting US government plane before his wife had a chance to say goodbye.
His sudden departure came shortly after the Thai cabinet approved his handover in a move that prompted fresh fury from Moscow, which had vowed to do all it could to bring Bout home.
Russia`s foreign ministry said his extradition was "illegal" and prompted by unprecedented US pressure.
The 43-year-old former Soviet air force pilot has been fighting extradition on terrorism charges since his March 2008 arrest after a sting operation in Bangkok involving undercover US agents posing as Colombian FARC rebels.
He was flown out on a US government plane accompanied by officials from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), said Colonel Supisarn Bhakdinarunart, commander of Thailand`s Crime Suppression Division.
"The operation had to be carried out quickly because of the possibility of an ambush and assassination on the way," he said. "The next destination of the flight is secret but its final destination is the US."
The inspiration for the Hollywood film "Lord of War", Bout has been accused of using a fleet of cargo planes to deliver arms in Africa, South America and the Middle East.
A Thai appeals court in August ordered the Russian to be handed over to the United States but the process was held up by technicalities over new accusations filed by Washington in an attempt to strengthen its case.
Bout has maintained his innocence from the day he was detained in the Thai capital after allegedly agreeing to supply surface-to-air missiles, in a series of covert meetings that also took him to Denmark and Romania.
He has repeatedly denied suggestions that he was a former KGB agent and maintains that he ran a legitimate air cargo business.
Washington, which has described Bout as "one of the world`s most prolific arms traffickers," has lobbied hard for his extradition. The case has put Thailand in a difficult diplomatic spot between the United States and Russia.
The Russian embassy in Bangkok said it had been taken by surprise by the timing of the extradition, which left Bout`s wife, Alla, in tears.
"The embassy got no official information from the Thais. It seems a little strange for us. It was done in such a hurry," said Andrey Dvornikov, head of the consular section.
"They have given nothing, no warning for the embassy, for the wife, for the lawyer -- nothing," he told a news agency.
Thailand for its part expressed confidence there would be no rift with Moscow.
"This decision will not create a problem with Russia because our foreign ministry has already talked with Russia," Tawin Pleansri, the secretary-general of the National Security Council, told reporters.
"It`s our decision, no matter whether Russia agrees or not."
Bout, who speaks six languages and has used at least seven separate identities, faces a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted in the United States on charges including conspiracy to kill US nationals and providing material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organisation.
Washington alleges that the arms he has sold or brokered have fuelled conflicts and supported regimes in Afghanistan, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Sudan.