Guns add to Waco mystery: US agents still search for the body of David Koresh

THE search for bodies and clues of the origins of the 19 April fire that destroyed the Branch Davidian home in Waco, Texas, resumes today after a weekend's break. The Texas Rangers say the cult members started the fire, but have not released evidence. Neither have they found the body of the cult's leader, David Koresh, among the remains of more than 70 believed to have died in the fire.

Seven of the bodies on which autopsies have been completed had gunshot wounds, officials say, but why they were shot remains a mystery. The shots appear to have been at point-blank range and guns have been reported lying next to bodies, but surviving cult members say their former colleagues would never have shot themselves unless they did it to escape dying in the fire.

Resolving the dispute is one of the many difficulties facing US prosecutors building a case against the surviving cult members. Five people have been charged with conspiracy to murder the four agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms who died in the original assault on the Waco compound on 28 February. Three of the five who face conspiracy charges are also accused of converting semi-automatic guns to fully automatic, turning them into outlawed machine-guns.

However, the government faces formidable hurdles in proving who fired the shots against the agents, let alone who fired the guns that killed the four. The prosecutors say they have videotapes and the cult's compound was bugged at various times during the 51-day siege, but the prosecution will have to rely also on some of the survivors turning against their comrades.

Perhaps none of them will. Dick DeGuerin, who was Mr Koresh's lawyer and who spent many hours with cult members inside the compound before the fire and has seen them since in jail, says they are still a tightly-knit group. They believe they were right in following Mr Koresh and their common enemy is the government's agents from the ATF and the FBI.

Key evidence such as finger prints, and even notes and diaries, were destroyed in the fire. Even the guns would have been badly damaged although probably not destroyed, according to fire experts. It takes a sustained temperature of 2,600F or more to melt a gun and the fire probably did not exceed more than 2,000F, the experts say.

The cornerstone of the government's case is that the cult members started the fire. They say they have ample documentary evidence including infra-red videotapes and listening bugs that the fire was started at three points simultaneously, countering the cult's assertion that it began when one of the army tanks the agents used to introduce CS gas into the compound knocked over a lit oil lamp that fell on a bale of straw.