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Koresh sect 'stocked arsenal'

WASHINGTON - The trial of 11 followers of David Koresh, the self-proclaimed Messiah, opened yesterday with the prosecution declaring that members of the cult had stockpiled 11 tons of weapons at their headquarters near Waco, Texas, in readiness for the gun battle last February in which four US law enforcement agents were killed, writes Rupert Cornwell

'We will show you . . . they were arming an army,' said the prosecutor, Ray Jahn, as the trial began in earnest in San Antonio. Over the months before, he declared, Davidians inside the Mount Carmel compound had carried out 'a massive arms build-up', which included hand grenades and other illegal weapons - all in a belief that Koresh's prophecies of apocalyse would be fulfilled.

Mr Jahn's statement set the scene for a trial expected to last at least eight weeks.

The 11 Davidians, who include an Australian and three Britons, face charges of murder, conspiracy to murder and firearms offences, for which they could be jailed for life. The offences pre-date the subsequent 51-day FBI siege which ended when fire swept the compound on 19 April and Koresh and at least 85 cult members perished.

The US government, however, will be on trial almost as much as those in the dock. As critical official reports have shown, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms ordered the assault, in which six Davidians died, even though it was aware Koresh had been tipped off. The defence insists this made the government partly reponsible for what happened, and will try to show that the Davidians acted in reasonable self-defence.

In a setback for the prosecution, Judge Walter Smith ruled the defence could raise precedents of comparable government raids - most notably the case of Randy Weaver, the white separatist who killed a federal agent during an attack on his Idaho refuge in 1992. A court deemed Mr Weaver had acted in self-defence, and acquitted him of murder.