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'Merchant of Death' in proposed prisoner swap a notorious Russian arms dealer

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'Merchant of Death' in proposed prisoner swap a notorious Russian arms dealer
Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout (C) leaves the criminal court in Bangkok in 2010. U.S. officials have proposed releasing Bout in exchange for Russia releasing Americans Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan. File Photo by Narong Sangnak/EPA

July 28 (UPI) -- Seeking to secure the release of Americans Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, U.S. officials confirmed this week they've made a proposal to Moscow to release a convicted Russian arms dealer with the somewhat menacing nickname of the "Merchant of Death."

Who exactly is Viktor Bout and how did he earn a reputation notorious enough to inspire a Hollywood movie?

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Bout is being held at U.S. Penitentiary, Marion, a medium-security federal prison in Illinois. There he's serving a 25-year prison sentence for selling weapons U.S. prosecutors said were intended to be used to kill Americans.

He was arrested in a joint U.S. and Thai police sting operation in Bangkok in 2008 and was held in custody there until he could be extradited to the United States in 2010. U.S. authorities had sought to arrest Bout for years, but had never been able to until Drug Enforcement Agency officials lured him by posing as arms buyers for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, a narco-terrorist organization. The fake militants sought to buy surface-to-air missiles to shoot down U.S. surveillance aircraft.

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Bout's early life is a bit of mystery, in part because he's used multiple names and passports throughout his life. He's alternatively gone by the names "Viktor Anatoliyevich," "Victor But," "Viktor Butt," "Viktor Bulakin" and "Vadim Markovich Aminov," according to CNN.

There does seem to be some consensus that he was born -- in 1967 -- and grew up in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. The country was part of the Soviet Union at the time, gaining independence in 1991 with its collapse.

The New York Times reported Bout served in the army before studying Portuguese at the Military Institute of Foreign Languages in Moscow. Bout is capable of speaking six languages.

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The institute is known as an entry point for serving in Russian intelligence. Bout is widely believed to have connections to the GRU, Russia's military intelligence, which survived the fall of communism and operates to this day.

In the 1980s, Bout served in the Soviet-backed Mozambique, where he served under KGB chief Igor Sechin. Bout was discharged from the armed forces after the fall of the Soviet Union.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union suddenly left scores of abandoned aircraft, stores of surplus weapons and a military unable to pay its personnel more than a meager salary. Bout saw the opportunity to build his own air fleet with abandoned cargo planes and ferry the surplus weapons to conflict areas, Douglas Farah, co-author of a book about Bout, told Mother Jones magazine in 2007.

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Bout ultimately sold arms by the planeload to dictators and rebel fighters across the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Latin America -- sometimes fueling a conflict from both sides. U.S. officials believe he armed the Taliban and the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone, Charles Taylor's regime in Liberia, the CIA-backed Units movement in Angola, warring factions in the Congo, and Abu Sayyef in the Philippines.

At times, he was allegedly paid in blood diamonds, though Bout denied this allegation.

Bout has maintained his innocence over the years, saying he's operated a legitimate business, and Moscow has repeatedly sought his release.

His story partly inspired the 2005 Nicolas Cage movie, Lord of War, about an illegal arms dealer. The film received praise from Amnesty International for bringing attention to the "deadly impact of the uncontrolled global arms trade."

In addition to Cage as Bout, the film starred Ethan Hawke, Jared Leto, Bridget Moynahan, Eamonn Walker and Ian Holm.

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