Pathologist denies bodies had bullet wounds: Doubts about Justice Department's account deepen official muddle over the Waco siege

A PATHOLOGIST yesterday flatly contradicted claims by the US Department of Justice that bodies with gunshot wounds were found in the charred wreckage that used to be the fortified headquarters of the self-appointed cult leader David Koresh.

The considerable official muddle over the death of 86 cult members at Waco deepened still further - amid suspicions that federal officials have been dispersing misleading information in an effort to escape blame.

The Justice Department has repeatedly claimed that victims of shootings had been found amid the charred wreckage of Mount Carmel, the cult's fortified compound. The information fuelled speculation that Koresh and his armed guards, the 'Mighty Men', may have shot cult members as they fled the fire.

But Dr Nizam Peerwani, pathologist in charge of the investigation, said there was 'no evidence at this stage' that the 35 bodies recovered so far had been shot - although some were carrying rifles. 'The bodies are in very bad shape and we want to discourage stories that they had been shot,' he said. A group of charred corpses with side arms were found clustered at the top of a bunker, in which 1 million rounds of ammunition were found, he said.

His comments underscore the flawed efforts of the US government to provide a convincing explanation for giving the go-ahead to the disastrous operation, in which around 24 Britons died.

The FBI has claimed that some cult members 'were forced to stay' as the fire erupted, and that there had been shooting inside the compound. The US Justice Department went further by claiming that a number of people had been shot through the head - a sign of mass suicide, mass murder or a combination of the two.

As investigators gingerly pick through the wreckage, mindful of the risk of booby traps, two very different versions are emerging of the final hours inside Koresh's empire. The FBI has said that Koresh and his followers calmly slipped on their gas masks and assembled in a protected area - and that cult members later started the fire in three places.

But survivors tell a different story. Dick Kettler, a lawyer for Renos Avraam, a 29-year-old former shop clerk from London, yesterday said his client witnessed terrifying scenes as the tanks rolled in. 'He thought he was going to get trapped or crushed,' he said. Mr Avraam told him he thought the FBI started the fire by knocking over a lantern, and that flames spread to bales of hay used to barricade their quarters.

Mr Avraam was in bed at the back of the compound when the tank attack began but had been expecting something to happen after hearing a report of FBI activities on the radio, said Mr Kettler. As the tanks hammered away at the walls, he went to to the front of the building. The fire was 'incredibly quick' and filled the place with impenetrably thick black smoke. Mr Avraam escaped by jumping from a second-floor window.

He is being held in jail as a material witness along with another Briton, Derek Lovelock, 37, a chef from Manchester. Both men appeared briefly in court yesterday and were remanded in custody. As an exhausted and thin Mr Lovelock was led into court, he was asked if he was a member of Koresh's personal guard. 'Do I look like a 'Mighty Man'?' he replied.

According to a Texas lawyer, Dick DeGuerin, who has interviewed five of the nine survivors, they saw people screaming and crying, debilitated by the tear-gas. As FBI tanks battered the building, some people were trapped as masonry crashed to the ground. The passage leading to the main entrance and to a bomb shelter was blocked by debris. As the tanks advanced towards the kitchen and church, cult members ran to move cans of lantern oil. Survivors have said colleagues were scattered around the compound. Koresh and several of his children were in his tower bedroom - and may have been trapped by a fallen stairwell. Others were in their rooms, or had gathered in the gymnasium and cafeteria.

According to FBI affidavits detailing life in the compound, female cult members had a sewing circle which made tactical vests for 'God's Marines', while men designed machine guns on a computer. Armed guards kept a 24-hour watch with orders to shoot intruders on sight. The affidavits claim that the self-styled 'Lamb of God' was running an arms workshop, and had weapons and ammunition stacked to the ceiling.

A former cult member told agents that Koresh had asked an aide to design a 'grease gun', a large-calibre machine pistol. And a state welfare worker, who visited the compound to investigate child abuse, described a seven-year-old boy who told her he longed to grow up so he could have a 'long gun' like the men around him.