UP until last Friday, he was someone most people had probably never heard of. But for journalists like myself whose beat is covering foreign affairs, the Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout was always a man somewhere on our radar.

In fact, it’s probably fair to say that in the vast majority of conflicts I’ve ­covered these past decades, especially in ­sub-Saharan Africa, the man dubbed the “Merchant of Death”, has been ­inextricably connected. From Angola to Rwanda, Sierra Leone to Liberia, Bout’s shadowy presence has always circled like some omnipresent vulture.

At 55 years old, Bout who speaks at least six languages, is the most well-known arms trafficker of his time and said to have profited from weapons that fuelled conflict not only wars in Africa but the Middle East, Asia and Latin America.

Such is his reputation that the film called Lord of War starring Nicolas Cage, is said to be loosely based on Bout’s life. But as the journalist and author Matt ­Potter – who was involved in the making of the award-winning documentary, The ­Notorious Mr Bout – observed a few days ago, Bout’s time in the spotlight only serves to “obfuscate the reality” of his crimes and trade.

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“The problem with getting hung up about spectacular rock-star characters like The Merchant of Death is you get blinded to the reality of the illicit arms trade,” said Potter who has written and studied this shadowy business.

“The people driving the illicit arms trade are the same ones driving the licit trade. And they are the people whose names you won’t’ see in the news,” ­Potter rightly pointed out in a piece for Time magazine in the wake of Bout’s release.

While so much of Bout’s real ­background remains unclear, what is abundantly evident is that the crimes for which he was sentenced to 25 years ­imprisonment are almost ludicrously disproportionate to that of possession of a single gram of cannabis oil, for which Brittney Griner, the US basketball star was detained in Russia since February.

To say that news of the prisoner ­exchange that saw both of them returned to their native countries on Friday was ­received very differently in certain ­quarters would be a huge understatement.

It’s not that those US critics of Bout’s release didn’t want to see Griner back home, but more that they realised the ­precedent Bout’s return to Russia could set. The simple fact is it potentially ­provides ­Russian president Vladimir ­Putin with badly needed diplomatic ­leverage by using similar swaps in future.

In fact, when asked at a summit in ­Kyrgyzstan on Friday whether other US-Russia prisoner exchanges could take place, Putin said: “We aren’t ­refusing to continue this work in the ­future.”

He added that “everything is possible” and noted that “compromises” had been found to clear the way for Thursday’s prisoner swap.

Such scenarios are troubling for some Russia watchers who maintain it ­carries risk by encouraging Russia to take ­hostages as a means of ­winning ­concessions. There are other factors at play here too with many analysts ­suggesting the Bout has links to Russian military intelligence and allies of Putin in the Kremlin.

As The Washington Post highlighted a few days ago these ties might include Igor Sechin, a former deputy prime minister of Russia and an ally of President Putin. Both Sechin and Bout served with the ­Soviet military in Africa during the 1980s.

The point is that the Kremlin has pushed for more than a decade to get Bout released so he clearly is of ­considerable value. Putin certainly will get ­considerable credit for Bout’s return and right now this serves him well in ­currying favour with some of his top ­military officials at a time when the president is under ­tremendous pressure over failures in the war in Ukraine.

As the UK based expert on Russian ­security Mark Galeotti commented ­earlier this year, before Bout’s release, freeing him would send a message to others who could end up in trouble: “The motherland will not forget you.”

But perhaps the most significant fact regarding the timing of Bout’s release is that it comes at the height of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Could it be that Bout’s “skillset” might prove invaluable at a time when Russia is looking for arms not least Iranian drones that Moscow purchases and ships illicitly through Turkey.

As journalist Matt Potter – whose new book We Are All Targets traces the ­crowdsourcing of war – points out, “these are dark times … and the dark flow of money and commodities is battering ­democracies.”

And that, as we all know, has forever been Viktor Bout’s stock in trade.



HE is said to have been rejected by his family who described him as a “mad old man”. Enter stage right “Prince” Heinrich XIII Reuss, scion of an aristocratic dynasty and now the alleged ringleader of a plot to overthrow Germany’s government.

Along with a group of two dozen other far-right radicals alleged members of the “Citizens of the Reich” (“Reichsbuerger”) Heinrich XIII, a 71-year-old real estate businessman, was arrested at his residence in Frankfurt last week.

Heinrich XIII (pictured) belongs to the House of Reuss, an ancient royal lineage that ruled parts of what is now Thuringia in central Germany for hundreds of years until 1918.

Reuss is just one of the many branches of German royalty, many of which have familial links across the rest of Europe, some of them to the British royal family.

In a quirk dating to the 12th century, male heirs to the Reuss throne are all called Heinrich, followed by a number. That’s in tribute to Heinrich VI, who reigned as the king of Germany and Holy Roman Emperor until his death in 1197. So much for the lavish historical background, but what does Heinrich XIII’s involvement in last week’s putsch plot tell us about the make-up of the Germany far-right radicalism?

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Well to begin with it reveals that its member are far from limited to the country’s dispossessed margins. As the Financial Times has highlighted, among those arrested last week were a judge, a lawyer, a doctor and even a celebrity chef. According to Thomas Haldenwang, head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, the Verfassungsschutz, what distinguished this terrorist group was “its very broad network across the whole of Germany, and the very precise plans they had in mind, plans which involved a great deal of violence … they fully intended to kill people.”

His views were echoed by federal police chief Holger Muench who confirmed that the group was heavily armed and posed a real threat. Those arrested, Muench said, included “a dangerous mix of people with irrational convictions, some with a lot of money and others in possession of weapons”. In the case of Heinrich XIII himself, he had made little attempt to hide his extreme views, which chimed with the “Reichsbuerger” movement’s belief in the continued existence of the pre-First World War German Reich, or empire, under a monarchy.

Eccentric they might appear but dangerous they undoubtedly are. This after all is a form of terrorism that has emerged out of mainstream society.



THE streets of Beijing were said to be fairly quiet these past few days. Although the Chinese government last Wednesday loosened key parts of its strict “zero-Covid” policy that has kept the pandemic largely at bay for the past three years, many people still appear wary of being too quick to shake off the shackles.

Of course, the country has been ­anything but placid or peaceful of late with protests against Covid curbs in many cities that marked the biggest show of public discontent since President Xi Jinping came to power a decade ago.

Trust in the government, never a strong point to start with, appears in especially short supply right now among many of this vast nation’s citizens. That wariness has only been ­compounded by what analysts say is ­under reporting of coronavirus cases and fatalities by the authorities helping to conceal the scale and severity of cases. In short, the figures they say simply don’t add up. How can it be global health analysts ask that as China loosens the world’s ­toughest Covid-19 restrictions, cases are declining on paper or at least appear to do so?

After hitting a record 39,791 cases ­nationwide on November 26, the daily caseload on Friday dropped to just 16,797.

By comparison, South Korea, with a population 26 times smaller than ­China, earlier this year reported more than 620,000 cases in a single day. Once again, say analysts, this contradictory trend has raised doubts about the accuracy of China’s Covid figures, which have repeatedly defied patterns seen ­elsewhere across the world since Covid began.

It’s a worrying reminder of the situation during the disastrous initial ­outbreak in Wuhan nearly three years ago when there was also a dearth of accurate data and ­information.

The National:

Part of the reason is likely a major ­reduction in mass PCR testing which alongside gaps in reporting cases and deaths makes it harder to assess current risk.

“We should address the problem – either report real figures or stop publishing them,” Hu Xijin, a former editor of the Global Times, a nationalist tabloid, wrote in a social media post, adding that ­disseminating “severely distorted figures to the public” was damaging the authority of official ­information.

Despite the lessons that should have been learned from three years ago, China seems to remain reticent in sharing vital data that impact not only on its citizens, but those far beyond its borders.



IT’S a nation no stranger to political upheaval and turmoil having had six presidents since 2016. But even by Peru’s past standards, the drama of last week that saw President Pedro Castillo attempt to dissolve the national congress and install an emergency government in what many feared was an attempted coup, shocked the country.

Castillo was elected president last year in an extremely tight election, beating opponent Keiko Fujimori by only about 44,000 votes out of more than 17.6 million votes cast.

No sooner had he entered office than Castillo was almost immediately riddled with corruption allegations such as claims he personally profited off of public works projects, leading to six federal investigations being launched against him.

Events last Wednesday began after congress had scheduled an afternoon vote on whether to impeach the president on these corruption charges, but Castillo, seeking to thwart the vote, announced the dissolution of congress and the installation of an emergency government.

The National: Pedro Castillo is being detainedPedro Castillo is being detained (Image: PA)

With little support, what resulted was mass resignations as key cabinet members and the country’s security apparatus turned again him.

“He was an inexperienced, unpopular, inept, politically-isolated president and those are conditions under which coups are guaranteed to fail,” was how Steven Levitsky, a professor of Latin American studies at Harvard University summed up the situation speaking to Time magazine.

In the event, the moves by Castillo which shocked even the president’s allies, meant that by day’s end he had been removed from office and was under arrest while Dina Boluarte – his vice-president – became president, and the first women to lead Peru. So, what comes next?

Well to begin with, its important to realise that not all Peruvians viewed Castillo negatively, far from it. Last month, polling by the Institute of Peruvian Studies found Castillo’s approval rating was 19% in Lima and 33% in urban areas nationwide but 45% in rural areas.

Many Peruvians in these rural areas now see 53-year-old Castillo – whose upbringing was that of a peasant farmer and former rural schoolteacher and who entered office with no political experience – as yet another victim of persecution by a corrupt Congress and elite.

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For the moment he remains under detention, having appeared in court on Thursday for the first time where judges rejected his attorney’s habeas corpus request and ordered the former president be kept in preliminary detention for another week. Meanwhile, the running of Peru lies in the hands of Boluarte, who like the man she replaced hails from his self-declared Marxist-Leninist Free Peru Party.

However, over recent months, she has managed to distance herself from Castillo and has no reputation as a firebrand.

A career lawyer, she has promised to put together a cabinet that represents Peru’s diversity and to rebuild trust in politics.

This will be no easy task in a country with myriad problems from drought in rural highland areas to widespread corruption. Then there is the fact that while Castillo might have made enemies, he also continues to have many supporters and these bitter divisions will trouble Peru for some time to come.