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Russian denies arming Taliban

By Moscow Bureau Chief Jill Dougherty

MOSCOW, Russia (CNN) -- A Russian businessman has denied allegations he smuggled arms to the Taliban and al Qaeda, or provided weapons and missile guidance technology to Iraq.

Bout denies U.S. accusations of selling arms to al Qaeda (March 4)

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Viktor Bout, the subject of an international arrest warrant, told CNN that media reports of his involvement with arms smuggling were "a witch hunt."

Bout, who runs a shipping company, said he did send cargo to Aghanistan, but to the legitimate Rabbani government from 1994 to 1996, shipping everything from appliances to textiles. He never dealt with the Taliban, he said.

CNN learned that in recent weeks British intelligence officials said they found evidence in Afghanistan that Bout shipped arms to the Taliban and al Qaeda, as well as circumstantial evidence that he shipped weapons technology into Iraq.

According to U.S. officials, the former Soviet air force officer has operated an air cargo business out of the United Arab Emirates for much of the past decade.

Intelligence officials say he has shipped large quantities of small arms to civil wars across Africa and Asia, often taking diamonds in payment from West African fighters.

'I'm a businessman'

Belgian officials also recently arrested a Kenyan diamond mine owner who has information about Bout's alleged ties to al Qaeda. That man had also talked to FBI officials about Bout's operations.

Bout said his air transport company was legitimate, and he has ferried a variety of cargo to Africa and to Afghanistan since 1992.

He denied any of it was done illegally and that he was paid in so-called "blood diamonds" from Africa. "I am a businessman," Bout said.

"It's a lie. I never touched diamonds in my life and I'm not a diamond guy and I don't want to go into that business."

Some media reports say Bout flew into Afghanistan just before September 11, but he told CNN the last time he was in Afghanistan was 1996 and never met terror mastermind Osama bin Laden.

Bout tells CNN he lives in Moscow, is a Russian citizen, and denies reports he has several passports. He says he is not afraid that he will be arrested by Russian police.

"I've never done anything in my life (for) which I should be afraid," Bout said.

"I'm here. I'm not hiding from nobody. I'm having my normal life and I don't want this story going on.

"I have my legitimate business goes on. Why should I be having to take chances and risking to do some tricky business and then later on be in the position where you did something extremely wrong?"

-- Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr contributed to this report


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