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International Manhunt Begins for Victor Bout

Aired February 23, 2002 - 08:13   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: Now the search for Osama bin Laden. Without new clues it goes on, quietly and largely unnoticed. But there's also an urgent search for a man you may have never heard of. U.S. intelligence officials say he's every bit as dangerous as bin Laden.

Here's our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This Russian, Victor Bout, known to U.S. intelligence for years as the world's most notorious arms trafficker, is now the subject of an international manhunt. CNN has learned that British military intelligence recently found documents and other evidence in Afghanistan that they believe proves Bout supplied arms to the Taliban and al Qaeda right up until September 11.

PHILLIP VAN NIEKERK, CENTER FOR PUBLIC INTEGRITY: He's an extraordinary person and he's very big and the question has to be asked why, how one individual is able to go as far and to sell as many weapons to as many places as he does.

STARR: Phillip Van Niekerk, an investigative journalist, has looked into Bout's worldwide network and obtained Belgian intelligence documents detailing his arms shipments to the Taliban.

VAN NIEKERK: We know of at least one case where his commission or his profit was $50 million, which is fairly substantial when you're talking about a war that's conducted primarily with small arms.

STARR: Two U.S. intelligence sources tell CNN there is also circumstantial evidence that Bout has shipped weapons technology into Iraq. U.S. intelligence believes he may have supplied Baghdad with a sophisticated missile guidance set. U.S. military officials urgently want Bout in custody to ask him about any possible link between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.

Intelligence agencies have kept Victor Bout on their radar for years, as he operated a fleet of Russian cargo planes from the United Arab Emirates. Intelligence officials tell CNN he shipped everything from tanks to rifles into civil wars and conflicts in numerous countries across Africa and Asia. U.S., British and United Nations officials believe that as payment he took drugs from Afghan buyers and diamonds from Africans and that he also flew arms into the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group in the Philippines, a group which has been linked to al Qaeda.

Sources say Bout will do anything for a deal, often sheltering his illegal activities behind legitimate operations and multiple identities. A U.S. government dossier calls him "intelligent and personable."

VAN NIEKERK: His operation is very extensive, 40 to 60 planes, something like 300 people on the ground, plus a network of associates spreading across the globe.

STARR (on camera): Victor Bout may be feeling the pressure. Earlier this month, Belgium took into custody a man, a diamond mine owner from Kenya, who is said to have details of his dealings with the al Qaeda. U.S. intelligence now wants to question that man, as well.

Barbara Starr, CNN, the Pentagon.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

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