Race hate warrior at bay in Rockies: Armed to the teeth, a fanatic ex-commando and his family are locked in a bloody stand-off with police. Phil Reeves reports from Los Angeles

AT LAST there was a shout. An indistinguishable, defiant yell came from the secluded log cabin high up on the crag. Several hundred heavily armed FBI agents, marshals and police officers in the woods below were pleased. Until then, the fugitive, Randy Weaver, a former US Army commando, white supremacist and survivalist, had refused to communicate.

If the writers of the weird soap Twin Peaks worked non-stop for a year, they would surely still fail to devise anything more extraordinary than the drama now being played out in the forests of northern Idaho. It would make a gripping plot, laced with farce, were it not also horribly real. So far it has claimed three lives.

Naples, a tiny mountain village 35 miles south of the Canadian border, is in the eye of a military-style operation, a siege involving military helicopters, armoured personnel carriers, bulldozers, Humvee vehicles and an array of high-powered weaponry.

The principal object of this blockade has been holed up with his family for the past 18 months in his secluded timber home in the woods. He has armed his children - even an 11-year-old daughter carries a gun. His cabin, perched on a mountaintop, is surrounded by the Douglas fir and larch forests of the North American Rocky Mountains; and by steep cliffs that police officers find hard to scale.

Weaver, 44, retreated to his hideaway after failing to turn up in court to answer charges of selling sawn-off shotguns to an FBI informer, who was part of an investigation into underground gun operations by Idaho's white supremacists. With him were his wife, Vicki, his three daughters, his son, and a burly 24-year-old logger called Kevin Harris, a like-minded individual whom Weaver has informally adopted as a son. They were thought to have plentiful supplies of food, guns and rockets.

For months after he first took to his fortress, Weaver was merely kept under surveillance. But nine days ago, William Degan, a veteran commander with the US Marshal's elite Swat team, was shot dead while he and other officers explored the land around the Weavers' cabin, apparently with a view to storming it. The FBI said the killer was Harris, who has been charged with murder.

The siege began in earnest. Nearly 200 officers from the state and federal law enforcement agencies were drafted in, accompanied by armoured vehicles and National Guard helicopters. They erected barricades, supported by kitchens and tents, around the cabin. Listening devices were wired up to monitor the family's conversations, and messages were broadcast by loudspeaker from friends and relatives begging the Weavers and Harris to give themselves up. An armoured car was used to deliver a telephone to their door. But Weaver refused to use it, and has so far only shouted at the police.

Three days after the siege began, police found the body of Weaver's 13-year-old son, Samuel, in an outhouse. The boy, who often carried a pistol at his hip, probably also died in the fire-fight, the FBI said. Then yesterday it emerged that Vicki Weaver had also died in the shoot-out.

Idaho, Montana, and Washington state have long been popular with outdoor enthusiasts, hunters and fisherman who treasure the cold, dark lakes and trout streams and can stand snowbound winters. But the Rockies region is also a refuge for religious zealots, white supremacists and outlaws, who see the mountains as a place where they can operate without much interference. Christopher Boyce, the clerk who sold CIA satellite secrets to the Soviets, hid near Naples after escaping from prison in 1980. Robert Mathews, leader of The Order, a white racist terror group, died after a siege shoot-out in Washington - and is still admired by some.

There is a long history of racism throughout this northern slice of America - for instance, 19th-century Oregon forbade blacks to stay more than six months or risk a public flogging. The area around Naples is almost entirely white. Among the 9,000 people scattered around the local county, Boundary, there is only one black family - a statistic that doubtless appeals to the more extreme white racist groups, who advocate turning the Pacific north-west into a white haven, an Aryan nation within the United States.

This might explain why, to the horror of the authorities, Weaver has acquired a number of supporters who see him as a hero. Local sheriff's deputies say that neo-Nazis have been flocking into the area. A crowd of up to 60 people, ranging from racists to anti-tax protestors, has gathered daily at the roadblock set up three miles from the scene of the siege. They hurl abuse at the police and kick passing FBI cars, bellowing 'Baby killers' and 'Traitors'. Weaver, they argue, is guilty of nothing more than exercising his constitutional right to bear arms.

The already bloody stand-off has the potential to turn uglier still. Five skinheads were arrested last week attempting to sneak past the police into the cabin. They were carrying rifles, semi-automatic weapons and a banner proclaiming the start of the white revolution.

Support for Weaver, a religious fanatic who four years ago ran for county sheriff as a Republican, has also come from the Aryan Nation, a racist group whose international headquarters are in a small church at Hayden Lake, about 60 miles south of Naples. Weaver has flirted with the neo-Nazi group, led by a 74-year-old ex-Lockheed engineer, but rejected it, apparently because he felt it was too moderate.

On Thursday, a new figure arrived on the scene in the swashbuckling form of Lt-Col James 'Bo' Gritz, from Nevada. Gritz, 53, is a retired Green Beret, a much-decorated Vietnam veteran, an author, and a ferociously right-wing independent candidate in the forthcoming presidential election. Gritz knows Weaver through military connections - Weaver was also in the special forces - so he flew to Idaho in the hope of acting as a mediator.

His intervention did not impress the police. The former commando was unceremoniously told to go away, and was at first refused permission to attempt to speak to the Weavers. Gritz, who claims to have been used as a model for characters in the Vietnam war movie Uncommon Valor, was furious. Yesterday, the authorities relented and allowed him to speak to Weaver by megaphone.

What will happen next is unclear. So far the besiegers have held back, worried that if they storm the cabin they may harm Weaver's children, who include a nine-month-old girl and two other daughters aged 11 and 16. Weaver has vowed to die rather than submit to arrest.

(Photographs omitted)