Oklahoma outrage `plot by far-right'

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THE FBI was casting its net wide around the United States yesterday in pursuit of a theory that Timothy McVeigh, the army veteran charged with the Oklahoma City bombing, was part of a far-right terrorist conspiracy.

The FBI said investigations remained at a preliminary stage, and that it was extending the searches beyond Oklahoma to Kansas, Michigan, and Arizona.

Adding a confusing new twist to the case, an FBI spokesman said yesterday morning that a mistake had been made in reporting on Friday evening that police had found the second main suspect. Terry Lynn Nichols, a friend of McVeigh whom police were questioning yesterday in Michigan, was not, after all, the man featured in a composite sketch released on Thursday. The composite pictures were based on two men who rented a large van believed to have been the source of the huge explosion on Wednesday.

The FBI spokesman described the capture of McVeigh and the holding of the Nichols brothers as "extremely heartening - but there is much work to be done." The second fugitive, still unidentified, remained at large, "armed and dangerous".

At the Oklahoma City bomb-site, rescue workers said the death toll had risen to 87, with 150 still missing and believed to be trapped under the rubble of the Alfred Murrah federal building. Hopes faded that anyone would be found alive, as thunder, lightning and driving rain yesterday morning brought rescue efforts to a virtual standstill.

While law enforcement officials were coy about releasing information on McVeigh, 27, neighbours and other people who know him painted a picture of an extreme, anti-government right-winger who was obsessed with guns. He was also reported to be deeply angered by the deaths of 70 members of the Branch Davidian cult after the raid on their Waco, Texas, headquarters by federal agents on 19 April 1993 - a date whose anniversary the Oklahoma City bombing marked.

NBC television reported yesterday that McVeigh had registered himself in the America Online computer directory as, "Mad Bomber ... with my associates from the Michigan Militia". The Michigan Militia is a paramilitary ultra- right group which shares many of the Branch Davidians' dark Doomsday obsessions. NBC said McVeigh had added a personal quote to his Online entry: "Let us take back the government ... or die trying. Boom."

McVeigh, who was carrying a semi-automatic pistol with armour-piercing bullets when he was arrested on Wednesday, has been accused by the FBI of "malicious danger and destroying by means of an explosive real property". As he was led out of a jail in Perry, Oklahoma, on Friday evening, for arraignment in Oklahoma City, a crowd outside shouted "murderer" and "baby- killer".

President Bill Clinton, who has made a point of expressing his disgust at the deaths of at least 12 children in a day-care centre in the bombed building, yesterday morning gave his fifth White House address since the bombing. It was a news conference where children, not reporters, asked the questions.

Mr Clinton sat next to his wife, Hillary, in the Oval Office and ranged before him on the carpet were around 30 children. The parents, federal employees all, stood stiffly in a semi-circle behind them.

In what appeared to be the first taste of electioneering politics as usual since the tragedy, Mr Clinton tried hard to come across as America's kindly paterfamilias. Recommending steps that parents might take to make sense of the bombing to their children, he said: "You should encourage your children to talk about what they are feeling" ... "You should reassure them, tell them their schools and day-care centres are safe"... "Go out of your way to tell your children how much you love them."

Mrs Clinton addressed the children in slow, deliberate, schoolmarmish tone. "You must remember, there are many more good people in the world than bad and evil people." Then came the dialogue. Mr Clinton put the question to the floor: what did they think of it all? "It was mean," piped up a little boy. "The people who did it should be very punished very badly to hurt the children," suggested a little girl.

Mrs and Mrs Clinton travel to Oklahoma City today to attend a memorial service for the victims of the explosion.

Federal authorities were yesterday continuing to comb the farmhouse in Decker, north-east Michigan, of James Nichols, the brother of Terry Nichols. They were looking for evidence that could tie the attack to neo-Nazi groups, with which James Nichols is a known sympathiser.