Agents besiege Texan cult leader

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The Independent Online
THE LEADER of a secretive religious sect who believes he is Jesus Christ and a number of his followers remained holed up in a fortified compound outside the town of Waco, Texas, yesterday, more than 24 hours after a ferocious gun battle with federal agents that left at least six people dead.

By yesterday evening about 300 state police and federal officers had encircled the compound, backed up by armoured vehicles and helicopters. Though no further shots were fired yesterday, a stalemate seemed to be developing with no sign of those inside surrendering.

Violence erupted in the compound on Sunday, when 100 agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), attempted to storm its main building and serve a search warrant. Four agents and one sect member were killed in a gun battle that lasted 45 minutes. Another member of the sect, known as the Branch Davidians, was killed in a second exchange late on Sunday night.

'The problem we had is that we were outgunned,' a spokeswoman for the ATF conceded yesterday. With no end in sight to the stand- off, she said telephone negotiations between the police and the sect members were continuing.

The sect's leader, Vernon Howell, 33, who insists he is 'the anointed one', told news organisations later that his two-year-old daughter had been killed in the gunfire and that he himself was wounded. 'I've been shot. I'm bleeding bad,' he told a Dallas radio station. 'I'm going home. I'm going back to my father. This is the end.'

Late on Sunday night, Mr Howell demanded local radio stations play a taped message of his religious beliefs in exchange for the release of children from the compound. The messages were broadcast repeatedly and a group of six young children were sent out at midnight on Sunday.

Officials said they believed that about 75 people, including more children, remained inside the 77- acre compound, which is surrounded by fencing and includes a tall look-out tower. It was assumed that large stockpiles of food, as well as ammunition, were inside to sustain the sect members for many days.

Alluding to reports that he has fathered children by several women inside the compound, Mr Howell told a television news network: 'There are a lot of children here. I've had a lot of babies these past two years. It's true that I do have a lot of children and I do have a lot of wives.'

The compound is the headquarters of the Branch Davidians, which is said to have only about 3,000 adherents around the US. The sect was created about 60 years ago when it broke away from the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, a mainstream Christian denomination with nearly 8 million followers that believes the Second Coming of Christ is near. It has consistently disavowed the Branch Davidians. Mr Howell joined the group in 1980 and became its leader in 1987.

Members of the sect interpret a passage from the Book of Ezekiel in the Old Testament, in which an angel is sent to mark the foreheads of the truly righteous in Jerusalem to spare them from an impending slaughter, as a sign that a 'destroying angel' will descend among the Seventh-Day Adventists and separate the true believers from the rest.

The ATF assault on the sect's compound came a day after the Waco Tribune-Herald began a series of reports on the cult, which included allegations that Mr Howell may have abused children of group members and that he claimed to have at least 15 wives. ATF officials said the raid had been planned for several weeks but had been brought forward after the paper began the series.

In an interview with the newspaper, Mr Howell said: 'If the Bible is true, then I'm Christ. But so what? Look at 2,000 years ago. What's so great about being Christ? A man nailed to the cross. Being Christ ain't nothing.'

(Photograph omitted)