Militia mania springs to life in the desert western desert

For all his bellicose ranting, America's most notorious militiaman cut an unimpressive figure as he entered a new battlefield where the opposition was not his arch-enemy, the US federal government, but angry pensioners, American Indians and women activists.

Several months ago no one paid much attention when conservatives invited Mark Koernke to speak at the Hilton in Palm Springs, a tranquil desert community in southern California where camouflage means wearing a lemon yellow jumper and carrying a putter.

Most people had never heard of the 37-year-old janitor and self-styled paramilitary, also known as the shortwave radio presenter "Mark of Michigan", who until recently filled the airwaves with warnings that his government was building concentration camps and planning to hand over power to a "New World Order".

But that was before a bomb went off in Oklahoma City on 19 April, killing 167 people. Ever since, Mr Koernke's mustachioed features have appeared regularly in America's newspapers alongside accounts of how the Michigan Militia was initially linked, then cleared of involvement, in the worst domestic terrorism in US history.

Fame and notoriety frequently become muddled here, so it was perhaps predictable that the meeting - entitled "Taking Our Country Back" - attracted 600 people from all over California, despite being held so soon after the Oklahoma tragedy. Such was the number of gun enthusiasts, former Ross Perot supporters and local militiamen that several hundred were put in an overflow room, where Mr Koernke's exotic theories were relayed by video link. An anti-federalist mood has been brewing in the western states for months; Oklahoma has evidently done nothing to abate it.

What was more surprising, though, was that Mr Koernke and his cronies faced spirited opposition in this sleepy and highly conservative community, 100 miles south-east of Los Angeles.

Much of the population - who include numerous Hollywood celebrities - are in their autumn years, whiling away the days in a community where the biggest thrill is the nightly staging of "The Follies", a floor show in which the high-kicking dancers range in age from 57 to 88.

Mr Koernke's arrival temporarily shattered the torpor. "I am not going to let some janitor tell me how to take back my country," said Gregory Corrasco, a Navajo Indian, among a small but vocal crowd of banner- waving protesters awaiting Mr Koernke's arrival. "I am so disgusted that anyone should allow this crazy bunch of yokels to have a meeting like this."

Alan Seman, a 70-year-old retired businessman, had his own bodyguard, hired after telephone threats when he publicly denounced Mr Koernke as a "purveyor of hate" and tried, in vain, to persuade his local council to stop the meeting.

"Some people were afraid to come out, which infuriates me," said Anita Rufus, a former local radio host known as the "Lovable Liberal".

"We should never allow people to make us afraid to express ourselves as Americans," she said, standing near a middle-aged man waving a "Free Butt Chips" banner - a reference to the article of faith among the more extreme militias that their government plants microchips in the backsides of Americans in order to keep track of them.

But Mr Koernke kept a low profile, slipping into the meeting by a back door long before it was due to begin, accompanied by several bodyguards. The crowd had to make do with a young man who began bellowing warnings about government "black helicopters" which the militias said were seen flying around. "And where do you think these helicopters are now?" he demanded. "In your head, you nut," came one retort.

The hotel general manager, Aftab Dada, looked under siege as he fielded telephone calls, his hotel crawling with plainclothes federal agents. He had received about 300 protest calls - proof that the Hilton was at the centre of one of the biggest local stories for months, overshadowing news that Frank Sinatra had sold his mansion for about $4.9m, or that an earthquake had rattled the region on Sunday morning.

For Mr Dada, it was a public- relations nightmare. But not for everyone. The proprietor of Palm Springs' Celebrity Bookstore had a front-window display which included a US Army manual called Boobytraps and The Anarchist's Red Book of Explosives and Demolitions.