Waco siege fall-out hits Washington: Search starts for 86 bodies in the ashes as FBI seeks to deflect criticism by blaming Koresh for 'mass suicide'

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The Independent Online
FBI INVESTIGATORS were last night sifting through the ashes of the fortress where David Koresh reigned as a self-proclaimed messiah to try to establish whether he and his band of followers committed mass suicide.

The clues lay in a smouldering patch of farmland on the mid-Texan landscape, where Koresh built his violent fantasy world and then drove it towards the conclusion that he had always promised: an apocalyptic fire, under siege from the outside world.

The elaborate complex which his disciples built - the gym, watchtower, chapel and fortified armoury - has virtually vanished, like a set from a Hollywood horror movie that has suddenly been dismantled. But the Federal Bureau of Investigation believes that the remains are yielding evidence which proves that Koresh and his praetorian guard started the fire, which destroyed the cult's headquarters in a mere half hour.

'There's no doubt in our minds. We have very specific evidence that occupants in the compound started multiple fires,' said FBI Special Agent Jeffrey Jamar.

Such discoveries, which include fuel containers, are being used by the FBI to back up its claim that Koresh is to blame for the tragedy, in which an estimated 86 people died, including many children. If it was a mass suicide attempt, then it seems to have been incomplete - there is no doubt some of the cult died unwillingly.

Nine followers survived, including two Britons who fled the building. Others turned back into the flames and some, the authorities believe, tried to escape but were prevented from doing so - probably by Koresh's armed lieutenants, known as the 'Mighty Men'.

Of the nine survivors, four were being treated at local hospitals, while the other five - including the two Britons and an Australian - were being held as material witnesses in the county jail.

The most tragic question remains the fate of 17 children, perhaps more. The FBI said yesterday that if Koresh had wanted to save them he could have placed them in an underground bus shelter. Some were toddlers, children borne by the 'wives' of the aspiring 33-year-old rock musician who forbade any men in the cult to have sexual relations.

'We went down to the bus hoping to find children,' said Mr Jamar. 'The air was cool and there was no gas. If Koresh had wanted those children to survive that was one place he could have put them safely.'

President Bill Clinton yesterday ordered a thorough investigation into the disastrous end to the siege. But he placed final responsibility squarely on the cult leader, who, he said, was 'dangerous, irrational and probably insane', a man who had 'killed those he controlled'.

Mr Clinton spoke of a 'horrible human tragedy'. Denying he had sought to distance himself from the outcome, the President said he took full responsibility for the FBI's actions. But he insisted the bureau had made 'every reasonable effort' to bring the standoff to a peaceful end.

The FBI fiercely fended off criticism of the operation it launched early on Monday in an attempt to end a 51-day siege at the compound by using tanks to batter holes in the compound and then pumping in tear- gas.

The agency's handling of the siege, which began after four agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms died in a gun-fight with the cult on 28 February, is the source of a growing number of difficult questions: Why take the risk of a mass suicide, rather than wait until the cult's supplies were exhausted?

Dick Deguerin, an attorney who negotiated on behalf of the cult members, condemned the raid: 'Not a single shot was fired since the siege started on 28 February, not a single person has been hurt . . . so why not wait?'

The FBI has laid the blame squarely on Koresh, whose actions it compared with Jim Jones, the religious fanatic who led 911 followers in a mass suicide in 1978. Mr Jamar said: 'It was not because of our actions. Those children are dead because David Koresh had them killed . . . He had 51 days to release those children. He chose those children to die. We don't have anything to do with those deaths.'

According to Mr Jamar, the agency has aerial photographs proving that the blaze was started in several different parts of the fortified compound. But one survivor claimed that the FBI started the flames by knocking over a lantern when an armoured vehicle started boring through the compound walls. Speaking on the way to a courthouse, he also insisted that there was no plan for a mass suicide.

Federal investigators rummaging through the ashes have yet to find many of the bodies. These will have to be identified by dental records. According to the Foreign Office, these include 24 Britons - 16 women, seven men and one six-year-old girl. But Mr Jamar said the possibility of anyone surviving in the rubble was 'very remote'.

The joint Justice Department and Treasury inquiry will report directly to the President. Outside experts will be called upon also, to avoid allegations of a whitewash. Mr Clinton has ordered full co-operation with Congress. 'We will be fully accountable to the American people,' he said.

For the time being at least, there seems no likelihood that the Attorney General, Janet Reno, who as head of the Justice Department is ultimately in charge of the FBI, will resign. The White House insisted Mr Clinton stood '1,000 per cent' behind her, and the President said that she had dealt with a difficult situation 'as well as she could have'.

Nor was there any sign that William Sessions, the FBI director already under fire for alleged ethics abuses, would step down immediately.

Even so, the recrimination promises to be bitter. Although Mr Clinton will probably escape major political damage, the Waco affair will do little to bolster his authority and prestige, already weakened by his partial climb-down on his economic stimulus package, currently blocked by Republicans in Congress.

Capitol Hill is now about to begin a number of investigations into the siege. The first, by a House judiciary subcommittee, starts on Friday. Its chairman, the California Democrat Don Edwards, professed himself baffled by the disastrous FBI escalation - a feeling almost universally shared.

Summing up the sombre mood, the New York Times said the decision to launch Monday's assault was a 'near- total miscalculation' and that the entire Koresh affair 'had been mishandled from beginning to end'. The hard lesson was 'that patience and determination does not cost lives, but impatience does'.

(Photograph omitted)