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Sunday, November 26, 2006

Russian arms dealer tied to Wilkes-Barre

Firm sells restricted items to Bout, banned from U.S. trading

WASHINGTON -- A sporting-goods store in a small northern Pennsylvania town is the unlikely focus of a federal investigation into the suspected re-emergence of the global arms transport network controlled by Russian businessman Victor Bout.

Federal officials this week said a recent search of the store near Wilkes-Barre, Pa., sought to learn whether a Bulgarian firm in Mr. Bout's business empire was being used to buy restricted paramilitary items for a company tied to Russia's intelligence agency.

According to a federal affidavit, the equipment allegedly sold included telescopic rifle scopes, binoculars and optics that can only be exported under State Department authorization.

The search of D & R Sport Center in Nanticoke, in Luzerne County, Pa., coincided with an effort by U.S. Treasury officials to broaden stiff financial sanctions against Mr. Bout and his organization. In late October, under an order signed by President Bush, Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control banned all U.S. firms from doing business with Mr. Bout because of the Russian's history of arms dealing in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Mr. Bout, several associates and 30 companies were covered by a similar ban and a Treasury assets freeze that was ordered in 2004 and expanded in 2005 because of financial dealings with deposed Liberian dictator Charles Taylor.

Heading a private air fleet of several dozen cargo planes and commercial airliners, Mr. Bout runs an operation that is considered to be the world's largest transporter of contraband weapons. He has a documented history of supplying arms and other cargo to any side in any conflict for the right price.

His planes have been linked to weapons deliveries to warlords in Africa and the Taliban in Afghanistan, and they later carried reconstruction supplies for the U.S. military and private contractors in Iraq.

"That's not the first time America is freezing or blocking so-called assets, although I don't have any assets in the U.S.," Mr. Bout said in an interview on the Moscow television program "Russia Today." "Nevertheless, every time it is the same story, the same repetition. I can even call it a witch hunt."

John Hageman, a special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in Philadelphia, confirmed this week that firearms agents armed with a federal search warrant inspected documents at the Nanticoke sporting-goods outlet Nov. 8.

An unsealed federal warrant and an accompanying affidavit indicated that ATF investigators sought shipping and wire-transfer documents, phone records, government licenses and computer and other electronic files from the Nanticoke store and a sister outlet in Bloomsburg, Columbia County, Pa.

According to an affidavit prepared by firearms agents Mitchell A. Worley and Michael A. Culp, investigators are looking into allegations that the D & R sports outlet "illegally shipped restricted items to Russia, Kuwait, Germany and Japan in violation of United States export laws." The sports outlet reaped more than $248,000 for the sales, the federal agents said.

The investigation centers on paramilitary equipment purchases made from D & R in early 2005 by Tactica Ltd., a Moscow firm that was described by investigators as "a member of the 'Vympel Group,' which is a known identifier for an elite counterterrorism unit that is controlled by the Russian Federal Security Service (formerly KGB)."

Mark Komoroski, who owns D & R with his brother, Theodore, acknowledged this week that his outlet had sold gun sights and other items to Tactica, and that he was aware of Tactica's "contract with the Russian special forces." But Mr. Komoroski denied that his store had broken any U.S. export laws. Tactica "never got anything that wasn't State Department licensed," Mr. Komoroski said.

Federal agents found that at least $60,000 that paid for Tactica's purchases had come from wire transfers sent in February and March 2005 by Rockman Ltd., a firm based in Sofia, Bulgaria. Rockman has been identified by U.N. investigators as a holding company owned by Sergei Bout, the brother of Victor Bout and a key associate in the Russian's arms operation.

According to the federal agents, an additional $44,000 for Tactica's equipment was routed in wire transfers from Ibrahim Haiji, a Pakistani man accused on federal charges of heroin trafficking. The affidavit does not detail any connection between Mr. Haiji and Victor Bout's organization.

In April 2005, as part of the sweeping U.S. sanctions against Victor Bout, Treasury officials banned any U.S. firm from doing business with either Sergei Bout or with Rockman Ltd.

The wire transfers showing an alleged financial relationship between Victor Bout's organization and Russian intelligence marks the first time the United States has found contemporary evidence that the two entities work in concert.

After living abroad for more than a decade, Victor Bout retreated to Moscow in 2002, after Belgian and Interpol officials issued an international warrant for his arrest on money-laundering charges. Despite Interpol's global law-enforcement authority, Russian officials refused to extradite Victor Bout, and Western officials complained that he had been given official protection.

In the affidavit, the federal agents said they were concentrating on Victor Bout's involvement in the Tactica sales because he "and his numerous shell companies around Eastern Europe and the world were also identified as significant participants in providing weapons to the dictator Charles Taylor in Liberia, rebel groups in Rwanda and the Taliban, as well as subsequent war crimes that were committed by those regimes."

The recent presidential order targeting Victor Bout in the Congo used similar strong language describing his illegal activities. Victor Bout was one of "seven individuals that have destabilized the Congo by impeding disarmament activities, violating international laws involving the targeting of children or violating a United Nations arms embargo," State Department spokeswoman Nancy Beck said.
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