WASHINGTON - The Treasury Department imposed broad financial sanctions Tuesday against the international arms network of Russian air transporter Victor Bout, freezing the assets of 30 companies and four individuals, including an American named as Bout's chief financial officer.
The move is aimed at crippling a global air empire accused of violating weapons embargoes in African civil wars for more than a decade. In addition, U.S. officials for the first time publicly accused Bout's operation of massive arms shipments to the Taliban in Afghanistan in the 1990s.
Although freezing assets has been a key weapon for the U.S. in its campaign against Al Qaeda and charities and banks suspected of being terrorist fronts, it has rarely been used against nonaligned international figures like Bout.
The move prohibits transactions between sanctioned firms and American businesses. Treasury officials said they would ask foreign governments to join the sanctions and would urge the United Nations Security Council to follow suit.
But the U.S. will also have to police itself. Over the last two years, air companies connected to Bout have operated hundreds of flights into Iraq for private contractors and the U.S. military, reaping millions. Last week, a plane operated by Irbis, one of the Bout-linked firms cited Tuesday, reportedly flew from an airbase controlled by the U.S. military in northern Iraq.
"At a minimum, it's going to make Bout's life and business very difficult to manage and to operate," said Juan Zarate, assistant secretary for terrorist financing and financial crimes at the Treasury Department.
Bout was targeted individually by U.S. sanctions last year. But arms experts say Bout has shielded his assets and planes over the years by churning them through a shifting network of holding companies and registries scattered from Liberia to Delaware.
On Tuesday morning, Treasury and FBI agents served search warrants on businesses in the Dallas suburbs of Plano and Richardson.
Authorities said the firms were connected to Richard Chichakli, a Syrian-born accountant whom they described as Bout's U.S. financial officer. The Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control named Chichakli as a Bout associate and targeted three air cargo firms and five other companies in Texas.
Chichakli did not respond to repeated phone calls and e-mails. But in previous interviews with The Times, he admitted setting up U.S. branches of San Air and Air Bas - two targeted Bout firms - and trying to build an airplane parts factory for Bout in Texas.
Bryan Sierra, a Justice Department spokesman, said the warrants were served in "an ongoing criminal investigation being conducted by the FBI, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the Department of Homeland Security, the Internal Revenue Service and the Defense Criminal Investigative Service."
Authorities said Chichakli was the target of the investigation led by the U.S. attorney's office and the Joint Terrorism Task Force in Dallas. One official said investigators were also scrutinizing the involvement of Bout-linked firms in arms shipments to the Taliban.
Bout made $50 million by supplying arms to the Taliban in the late 1990s, Treasury officials said. "He was providing air cargo services that moved materiel to the Taliban," Zarate said, noting the regime's support of Al Qaeda.
Two of the Bout companies targeted Tuesday - Air Cess and Vial Co. - were involved in the clandestine sale of a fleet of air freighters to the Taliban in 1998 and 1999. A 2002 report in The Times described the scheme and the Taliban's use of its air cargo fleet to import weapons and ferry militant fighters.
Other firms targeted included Centrafrican Airlines, San Air General Trading, Air Bas, CET Aviation, Transavia Travel and Santa Cruz Imperial.
San Air and Centrafrican were cited by the U.N. for supplying arms to Charles Taylor's regime in Liberia.
Also named in the Treasury Department's action were two senior Bout managers, Serguei Denissenko and Valeriy Naydo.
Bout has been a fugitive since Belgium issued an arrest warrant in 2002 on money-laundering charges.
Bout and his brother Sergei, who was also targeted by the Treasury Department, have remained free in Russia.
Calls to Sergei Bout's Moscow home went unanswered Tuesday. Victor Bout has denied the Belgian charges and also that he aided the Taliban.
Russian officials could be forced to act if the U.N. adopted the Treasury Department's sanctions, said Lee S. Wolosky, a former National Security Council aide in the Clinton and Bush administrations who targeted Bout's network.
"The Russians will be faced with the prospect of shutting him down or being in contravention of the Security Council," Wolosky said.
The U.N. has already leveled sanctions on many Bout firms, a terrorism expert said.
"They'll need real international cooperation, otherwise it ends up being a grand statement," said terrorism consultant Michael Chandler, who formerly headed the U.N.'s counterterrorism efforts.
Chandler questioned whether the U.S. could win support in Russia and in Eastern Europe, Africa and the Middle East - where many of Bout's firms were based - as long as the network's planes continued to fly under contract for the U.S. military and private contractors.
Planes operated by Irbis and Air Bas flew at least 142 times into Baghdad International Airport after the Iraq invasion, Air Force fuel records show. The planes shuttled in supplies and personnel for the U.S. military, Federal Express and the American contractor KBR.
On April 19, an Irbis plane flew from the military base in Balad, Iraq, to Sharjah International Airport in the United Arab Emirates.
"How do you get them to fall in line if the United States isn't following its own rules?" Chandler asked.
But Zarate said the Treasury Department was working with Pentagon officials to stop contracts with Bout-connected companies.
"With a network the size of the one that Bout has created, there are bound to be these interlocking entities that have to be unwound," Zarate said. "This gives us the tools to do that."
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