Viktor Bout arms dealing trial begins in New York

Viktor Bout in custody Viktor Bout is alleged to have overseen the world's biggest private arms dealing network

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A former Soviet military officer has appeared before a New York court to face charges of selling arms to anti-American rebels.

The prosecution says Viktor Bout, dubbed a "Merchant of Death", wanted to sell "staggering quantities" of weapons and explosives for millions of dollars.

His defence insists that Mr Bout wanted only to sell two transport planes for $5m (£3.2m).

Mr Bout was arrested in 2008 in a hotel in Bangkok, Thailand.

He is being tried for conspiracy to kill US citizens and conspiracy to provide help to a terrorist organisation.

If convicted, he could face up to 25 years behind bars.

Arms sale

In the opening statements of the trial the prosecution alleged Mr Bout had promised to deliver 100 surface-to-air missiles, 20,000 high-powered rifles and 10 million rounds of ammunition to rebels in Colombia in 2008.

"This man, Viktor Bout, agreed to provide all of it to a foreign terrorist organisation he believes was going to kill Americans," Assistant Attorney Brendan McGuire told the jury.

The court was told that Mr Bout had been caught in a sting operation by the US Drug Enforcement Administration.

Two US government informants were posing as weapons buyers for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as Farc, which Washington has classified as a terrorist organisation and says is involved with the cocaine trade.

At the scene

Viktor Bout sat impassively in his blue pinstriped suit with the upright bearing of a former Soviet military officer. His wife and daughter gestured supportively to him from the back of the courtroom.

The man known as the Lord of War for his alleged role in selling arms to fuel conflicts from Afghanistan to Sierra Leone listened carefully as the lawyer for the prosecution outlined the case against him.

This case will hinge on whether or not the jury believes the sting by the US authorities provided Mr Bout with the excuse he was looking for to try to sell an arsenal of weapons.

Viktor Bout's lawyer says his client was the victim of a bait-and-switch con scheme by ex-criminal US informants posing as Colombian rebels. The wire-tapped conversations between Viktor Bout and Carlos and Richard, the US Drug Enforcement Agency sources, will be at the heart of the case.

Prosecutors told the jury of key meetings in Bangkok in which Viktor Bout was told the weapons would be used to kill US pilots working with Colombian officials.

According to prosecutors Mr Bout replied: "We have the same enemy."

But the defendant's lawyer countered, saying: "Viktor never walked into that meeting saying, 'Hey I want to kill Americans'.'"

The court will also hear hours of recorded conversations which purport to show Mr Bout talking about the weapons' sale.

His defence lawyer, Albert Dayan, argued that his client had only agreed with DEA operatives to secure the sale of two transport jets, for a total cost of $5m.

He told the jury Mr Bout had subsequently lost his transport business and was working in real estate when he became the target of the US government sting.

"Viktor was baiting them along with the promise of arms, hoping just to sell his planes," Mr Dayan said.

The charges relate only to the alleged arms sale in Thailand, but US officials say Viktor Bout sold weapons to dictators and guerrilla forces in Africa, South America and the Middle East.

Before the opening of the trial the jury was asked not to reveal their involvement with the case via social media.

A day earlier, the trial judge also asked the jury to sign a pledge not to undertake any research about the trial on the internet.

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