By Bernard Vaughan
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A U.S.-Syrian citizen, accused of conspiring with convicted international arms dealer Viktor Bout and others to try to buy two aircraft from U.S. companies in violation of economic sanctions, has been arrested in Australia.
Richard Ammar Chichakli was arrested at the request of U.S. authorities, the U.S. Attorney's office in Manhattan said on Thursday. He was charged in a nine-count indictment and faces up to 180 years in prison if convicted on all of the charges.
"As alleged, Richard Ammar Chichakli consorted with the world's most notorious arms trafficker in the purchase of aircraft that would be used to transport weapons to some of the world's bloodiest conflict zones," Preet Bharara, US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said in a statement.
Chichakli's attorney could not be immediately identified. There was no immediate response to an emailed request for comment sent to a website set up in Chichakli's defense.
Bout, a Russian arms dealer, is serving a 25-year prison term in the United States. He was convicted last year of conspiring to sell weapons to the FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a rebel group.
Bout's case caused a rift with Moscow, which called his arrest and trial unfair. In November, the U.S. Justice Department turned down Russia's request to return Bout to Russia.
Chichakli is charged with one count each of conspiracy to violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, money laundering conspiracy, wire fraud conspiracy, and six counts of wire fraud.
Chichakli, whom federal prosecutors say had a close relationship with former Liberian President Charles Taylor, has been a "close associate" of Bout's since at least the mid-1990s, according to federal prosecutors.
In 2004, President George W. Bush issued an executive order prohibiting any transactions or dealings in the United States by individuals affiliated with Taylor. That prohibition, which had already been extended to Bout, was placed on Chichakli in 2005.
Bout and Chichakli had also been subject to United Nations Security Council sanctions on their travel and ability to conduct business.
After these sanctions were in place, prosecutors contend, Bout and Chichakli created companies in the names of others to hide their involvement.
Through one company they created, Samar Airlines, they tried to buy two Boeing aircraft from U.S. companies in 2007 and wired more than $1.7 million through New York banks into U.S. accounts in connection with the deal, prosecutors said in court papers.
The U.S. Treasury Department blocked the funds that had been transferred into the bank accounts of the U.S. aviation companies when it learned of Chichakli's connection, prosecutors said.
(Editing by Martha Graybow and Bernadette Baum)