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The Waco Siege: Waiting game ends in a fiery furnace: As the Branch Davidian stand-off ends in tragedy the authorities face questions about their handling of the cult

THE 'Jonestown syndrome' - a mass suicide pact - was always a possible ending to the stand-off with the Branch Davidian cult, but the FBI had not considered a burning fiery furnace as the escape route David Koresh would choose for his followers. Officials did not talk about it at the daily news briefings they gave in a hall behind the Hilton Hotel in Waco, 10 miles from the cult's compound, and if they had considered it when the tanks went in yesterday morning to destroy the cult's compound 51 days after the stand-off began, there were no fire-engines standing by.

Bob Ricks, the FBI agent who took the noon news briefings with his colleagues from the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) division, spent most of the first days of the siege defending their initial bloody assault against the cult that ended with four agents dead, 16 wounded and at least two of cult members killed. The use of such masssive force, even though Koresh had heavily armed cult members, is an open question which is still the topic of various government inquiries.

The main reason for the raid was the stash of illegal firearms the cult had piled up inside the compound. But why the authorities could not have apprehended Koresh on one of his jogs around the flat Texas plains, or on one of the frequent trips he made into Waco to get supplies, is still bewildering.

Heavy criticism of the raid from inside and outside government kept the FBI and ATF officials on a relatively low profile for the first two weeks of the siege. Evidence that the FBI meant business was everywhere, however. Reinforcements of agents arrived from neighbouring states and could be spotted in Waco's riverside restaurants sporting their navy-blue FBI baseball hats and their navy-blue jerseys with gold lettering - 'Sniper' and 'Sharpshooter' - embossed on their broad chests.

In the fields around the compound four Abrams tanks arrived and their crews mixed with the agents in their camouflage fatigues, patrolling up and down the country roads but always keeping a respectful distance.

Each night, and sometimes until the early hours, Koresh would speak to the FBI by telephone, giving them long Bible lessons and sometimes telling them about his wounds in the wrist and thigh suffered during the intitial shoot-out.

The FBI tried to persuade him to release the women and children from the compound, and he agreed to let a dozen or so out.

But then he tired of the endless calls, and so did the FBI. Koresh started to hand the phone to one of his lieutenants, or simply hang up. At one point, he told the FBI: 'We're ready for war, let's get it on'.

In the third week, the FBI turned up the heat, too. They kept the compound flooded with lights during the night and played music and broadcast recorded conversations of Koresh over loudspeakers. The idea, said Mr Ricks, was to make sure those inside the compound knew what their leader was doing to them.

The tactics took their toll of patience on both sides. Mr Ricks warned that Koresh was 'becoming more and more withdrawn and delusioned', and the FBI was more and more concerned that he might stage a 'Jonestown suicide' similar to the mass suicide of the followers of Jim Jones in Guyana in 1978.

There was a ray of hope. David Koresh talked a lot about the Passover week and the Book of Revelation and waiting for a word from God before he would consider surrender to charges of murder. But to step outside the compound was always to go straight to jail. Those adult followers who got out were charged with conspiracy to the murder of the agents. At the start of the Passover week, the FBI announced a new, tougher policy. 'The Bible classes are over,' they said at the press briefing, 'we are moving to more substantive issues.' Koresh got himself a Texas lawyer and talked about coming out, and the FBI said they were 'cautiously optimistic' about a peaceful end to the siege. But nothing happened.

Mr Ricks warned: 'If it doesn't happen we'll have to decide what else to do.' He said there were various options and implied they were military ones.

Yesterday, apparently with the approval of President Bill Clinton, the FBI started demolishing the compound's fragile wood and plaster walls with an armoured bulldozer of the type last seen in action by television viewers in the Gulf war. At the same time the tanks fired CS gas into the compound. Asked whether this would not harm the children inside, Mr Ricks replied at the daily briefing that 'hopefully the maternal instincts of the mothers would kick in'.

As he was speaking, three cult members were reported to have set the compound on fire, and the sleepy town of Waco saw the end of its most celebrated criminal since Bonnie and Clyde drove through many years ago.

(Photograph omitted)