Questions being asked as siege of Texas cult drags on

THEY HAVE blasted it at night with tasteless music and electric light. They have offered every kind of compromise. They have flattered, cajoled and virtually begged. But still federal negotiators trying to end the stand-off with members of the Branch Davidian sect in Waco have made no progress.

It is now a full month since the original, failed, raid against the compound by agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco (AFT), in which four officers and an unknown number of cult members were killed. Inside still are the messianic sect leader, David Koresh, and up to 100 of his followers, among them roughly 27 Britons and 17 children.

In recent days two unknown individuals have penetrated the security ring around the complex, actually to join the embattled Davidians. FBI officers are said to spend long hours scouring the pages of the Bible for clues as to how they might better understand the logic of Mr Koresh.

While all this paints an unhappy scene of frustration and futility, questions are more urgently being asked over how it was that the original AFT assault on the complex on 28 February was allowed to go so badly wrong. Those who would like to know the answers include President Bill Clinton, who has ordered that no action now be taken that could lead to further loss of life.

It is not even clear on what grounds the raid was launched. The original warrants remain sealed today. These are believed - though no official comment has been made - to address the stock-piling by the sect of firearms, and specifically the conversion of weapons from semi-automatic to fully automatic.

However, the official inquiry that has been promised by Treasury Secretary, Lloyd Bentsen, into the circumstances of the raid, will focus particularly on evidence, first, that Mr Koresh knew about it in advance and was able to meet it with bullets and, second, that AFT commanders realised this even before the assault was under way but refused to abort it.

Details of how the planning and execution of the operation was allegedly bungled have come in part from surviving officers involved who, embittered by what they see as failures of leadership, have leaked information anonymously to the media. They say, for instance, that before the agents were sent into the compound, AFT helicopters overhead had been fired upon - clearly indicating that the hoped-for element of surprise was lost.

It seems that, while an undercover agent had penetrated the compound some time before the operation and other agents had moved into a nearby house masquerading as students, Mr Koresh was aware of their identity.

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