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Clinton 'not responsible for Waco decision' Reno denies Waco decision was Clinton's

President Clinton played no part in the disastrous decision to send in federal agents to end the Branch Davidian siege at Waco, Texas, two years ago when 80 people died, the administration's top law enforcement official said yesterday.

Rejecting Republican attempts to link Mr Clinton to the tragedy, the Attorney General, Janet Reno, insisted that in the fateful days before the 19 April 1993 tear gas raid on the Mount Carmel compound, the President neither changed the FBI's plan nor put pressure on her to act quickly. The cult's leader David Koresh was wholly responsible for the deaths, she said.

"I advised the President, he asked a few questions and said he would back me up in what I decided. And he did."

Ms Reno was the last of 90 witnesses to appear before a House committee in hearings which have often seemed less like an effort to unearth facts about the deadliest operation in modern US law enforcement history than a Republi- can witchhunt of Mr Clinton, egged on by the National Rifle Association.

Interest in Waco was rekindled by the bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City earlier this year. The arrested suspect, Timothy McVeigh, is alleged to have committed the crime in revenge for the siege, held by extremist right-wingers as proof of how far the federal government is ready to go to suppress the rights of ordinary gun-toting Americans.

Thanks to the NRA, a heavy contributor to the Republican party, Congress has chosen not to focus on the heavily armed militias linked to the Oklahoma outrage in which 168 people were killed, but on Waco, which is already the subject of at least three investigations.

For nearly three weeks now television audiences across the country have been treated to a rerun of the bizarre and bloody events of two years ago on the Texas prairie: the original botched raid by Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents, the 51-day siege, the sexual perversions of Koresh, his obsession with the Biblical seven seals and the apocalypse-like denouement - two years to the day before Oklahoma City.

Ms Reno did not hide her distress at what had happened. She told of 949 conversations totalling 215 hours between FBI agents and Koresh and his lieutenants inside the compound.

"Koresh wouldn't leave, it was an impossible situation ... I studied intelligence reports, and even went to the 'Book of Revelations' for clues," she said. By mid-April the FBI said that it was ready for an operation, "and I decided we should go forward. It will live with me for the rest of my life."

She dismissed insinuations by a Republican congressman, Bill Zeliff, of New Hampshire, the committee's chairman and the prime accuser of President Clinton, that the FBI had somehow started the deadly fire in which 22 children died. Koresh had set the fire which consumed his followers, she said. "He chose death for the innocent children of Waco."

But Republicans contend that Ms Reno, who was only a month into the job when the siege ended, could not have taken the decision alone and sought the advice of her superiors at the White House. Mr Clinton this week denounced those claims as "baseless and irresponsible".