Judgement Day nears on Waco Apocalypse

NINE MONTHS after the conflagration in which the cult leader David Koresh and scores of his followers died, some of his surviving disciples are preparing to experience what is likely to be his only accurate prophecy. After the Apocalyse comes Judgement Day.

Tomorrow a court in San Antonio, Texas, will begin selecting jurors for the trial of 11 members of the Branch Davidian sect, including three Britons, accused of conspiring to murder US law enforcement agents. If found guilty, they could be jailed for life.

The case is another chapter in a saga which has proved acutely embarrassing to the US authorities, but has yet to be satisfactorily brought to a close. The bodies of 40 cult members remain on ice in a morgue at Fort Worth, awaiting identification. Opinions still differ over who bears ultimate responsibility for their deaths, and those of about 40 other Davidians.

Much of the trial is likely to focus on the bungled raid last February on 'Ranch Apocalypse', the cult's fortress headquarters outside Waco, by the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), in which four of its agents were killed. A government investigation into the operation, in which 100 ATF agents stormed the compound in search of illegal weapons, condemned it as poorly planned and ill-executed.

The Davidians had been tipped off about the raid, which led to a 51-day siege and, finally, to a tear-gas assault on the compound by FBI tanks on 19 April. Koresh and most of his followers, including 24 Britons, died, either burnt alive in the ensuing fire or from gunshot wounds. Only nine survived - although 21 children and 16 adults had left earlier.

According to a grand jury indictment, the 11 cult members conspired in a 'holy war' that Koresh was trying to wage against the US from his countryside fort, where he had amassed a vast arsenal. When the FBI tanks rolled in, the indictment alleges, Koresh ordered the cult's immolation. Survivors have disputed this, saying the tanks knocked over lamps which started the flames.

The defendants, who face multiple charges, include Renos Avraam, 29, and Norman Allison, 28, both from Manchester, and Livingstone Fagan, 32, from Nottingham. All three, according to the authorities, were members of Koresh's machine-gun-toting praetorian guard, the 'Mighty Men'.

The indictment says Mr Avraam and Mr Fagan, a defrocked pastor who lost his mother and wife in the blaze, 'did change into camouflage /combat uniform and equipment, gather their pistols and rifles, load magazines, distribute hand-grenades, assume ambush positions and engage in other conduct designed to kill ATF agents'.

US proscecutors have already scored one triumph. They have recruited the support of another surviving Davidian, Kathryn Schroeder, who is expected to give evidence against her former fellow worshippers, after striking a plea bargain. But they still face a tough job.

When the ATF assault occurred, there was an outcry from many Americans who felt that the federal authorities had little justification for interfering with an obscure cult (albeit armed to the teeth), which appeared to be minding its own business.

The decision to try the survivors is seen by some as a retrospective attempt by the US government to switch blame for the tragedy to a few cult survivors. A jury of Texans, no admirers of federal intrusions, may just feel the same way.