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U.S. suspect calls arms charges 'lies'

MOSCOW — An American indicted in the U.S. with accused arms trafficker Viktor Bout called the charges "lies" on Friday and vowed to return home from Russia to challenge them in court.

Richard Chichakli told The Associated Press in Moscow that his indictment by federal prosecutors in New York was "absurd" and "crazy," and that he feared he would not get a fair trial. But he said was determined to disprove the allegations.

"I'm not asking for mercy," the accountant said. "If I made a mistake, hang me."

The conspiracy and wire fraud charges filed Wednesday against Chichakli relate to allegations that a Bout-connected firm based in Tajikistan sought to buy two Boeing aircraft in 2007.

The purchase was allegedly in violation of U.N. and U.S. sanctions aimed at halting the flow of arms to war zones in Africa.

Bout has denied the charges through his attorney in Thailand, where he is currently fighting extradition to the United States. He was arrested in Bangkok last year at the request of the U.S., which charged him with attempting to smuggle arms to insurgents in Colombia. Bout denies those charges as well.

A British official dubbed Bout "The Merchant of Death" because of his 1990s-era notoriety for running a fleet of aging Soviet-era cargo planes to conflict-ridden areas in Africa.

Wednesday's indictment charges Bout and Chichakli with money laundering, wire fraud and conspiracy, alleging they tried to buy the jets in the U.S. in defiance of sanctions.

The indictment describes Chichakli as "assisting in the operations and financial management of Bout's network of companies," saying he worked as chief financial officer for several of Bout's firms.

Chichakli told the AP he has never worked for Bout in any capacity, although they had discussed business deals that never came to fruition.

"I have never done business with Viktor Bout," Chichakli said. Bout has never paid him anything, he said, and "I challenge anyone to prove otherwise."

In the past, U.S. Treasury officials have cited a 2000 Chichakli resume in which Chichakli identified himself as controller and chief financial officer of several air cargo firms that have been long associated with Bout's business empire. Chichakli has insisted the resume was fraudulent.

Chichakli told The Associated Press that he met Bout in 1995 in Sharjah, the United Arab Emirates, where Chichakli said he managed a free trade zone on behalf of the UAE government. He said Bout based his fleet of cargo planes at the adjacent airport.

"Viktor Bout was just like any other Joe in the street," he recalled, one of scores of other entrepreneurs operating in the zone.

The two became close friends and Chichakli says he supported Bout when he was nearly bankrupt around 2000. But he said he never saw any evidence that Bout was engaged in illicit arms trades. "He was a cargo man. End of story."

Chichakli, a certified public accountant, said he was born in Damascus, Syria, but moved to the U.S. as an adult and served in the U.S. military as an air traffic controller.

When Bout was targeted in the early 2000s by U.N. investigators for his alleged arms deals in Africa and by U.S. efforts to have him apprehended, Chichakli emerged as his public spokesman in the U.S.

Chichakli insisted that Bout was not the "monster" portrayed by governments and media accounts.

After a two-year investigation, federal agents seized Chichakli's records and assets during an April 2005 raid at his suburban Dallas home and office and banned several of his firms from conducting any financial dealings.

He fled the U.S. soon afterward with the help of friends, he told the AP, and turned up in Moscow. U.S. officials have said he used Lufthansa frequent flier miles.

Russia has no extradition treaty with the U.S.

Here, he waged a long-distance campaign to overturn the Treasury sanctions. A U.S. court has kept the sanctions in place.

On Friday, Chichakli estimated the value of his frozen U.S. holdings at $1.6 million.

U.S. officials have said Chichakli is believed to have traveled from Moscow in recent years despite a 2001 international travel ban imposed on him by the U.N.

Chichakli told the AP that he believed the case against him is part of an effort to pressure him to testify against his friend. "The U.S. made up this case for one simple reason," Chichakli said. "To get to Viktor Bout."

Chichakli said he is having a hard time finding a U.S. lawyer he can afford. But he said he was determined to stand trial.

"I do intend to return to the United States. I do intend to fight these charges. These charges are unfounded," he said.

The case against him, he said, was based on suppositions and fabrications.

"We should take their word for it, as much as we took their word for the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq," he said. "One day, the world is going to know the truth."

Associated Press Writer Stephen Braun contributed from Washington, D.C.