US on alert as terrorist anniversary approaches

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US government buildings have gone on a heightened state of alert for this week's anniversary of the worst act of domestic terror in America's history.

It was a year ago on Friday that former soldier Timothy McVeigh allegedly planted the home-made truck bomb that exploded outside the Alfred Murrah government building, killing 168 people and injuring another 400.

There are no reports that the shadowy collection of so-called militia members, tax protesters, survivalists, white supremacists and others who denounce the US federal authorities plan a show of strength on 19 April. But one private centre in Atlanta that keeps track of some 12,000 names linked to the American far right insists that the threat of home- grown terrorism, far from receding since the shock of the bombing, has actually increased sharply in the past year.

"Unless we take decisive steps now to respond to this threat, it is only a matter of time before the country endures another nightmare like the Oklahoma City tragedy," wrote Morris Dees, chief counsel of the Southern Poverty Law Centre, in a warning letter to US Attorney General Janet Reno last week. In a new report the centre identifies over 800 right-wing "Patriot" organisations, including 441 so-called militias, said to be preparing for combat with the federal government.

Though numbers of members are hard to pin down it was Mr Dees and others who warned in the months before the Oklahoma City bombing of a rising security risk. Gauging the true threat from the American far right, whose anti-government war-mongering apparently inspired Mr McVeigh, is as elusive a goal as ever. But from Chicago to Nebraska, US authorities this week were discreetly refortifying government buildings with bomb-sniffing dogs and extra security guards. Criminal intelligence officers in Ohio, the New York Times reported, circulated a letter to police chiefs and local sheriffs reminding them that 19 April is also the anniversary of the fire ball at Waco, Texas, in which David Koresh and some 80 cult followers perished. The badly bungled siege of the cult compound by federal agents is still a cause celebre for militia activists and the gun-rights lobby. "It is for this reason that we recommend an internal alert for any possible violence on April 19th, 1996," the letter said, urging "all due caution".

The so-called militias sprang up across the US in 1994 promising to resist a conspiracy of tyranny emanating from Washington by force if necessary, and defend citizens' rights to bear arms.

At town hall meetings which drew hundreds of people, men in camouflage warned that America was in danger of a takeover by the UN. Mainstream support shrank amid images of children's bodies being pulled from the wreckage in Oklahoma. But Mr Dees and others appear newly concerned by a hard-core who are committed to paranoid conspiratorial beliefs and often already outside the law.

"We refer to this as the consolidation of the whackos," said Christine Kaufman, of the Montana Human Rights Network.

For four years Ms Kaufman has watched the growth of the Montana Freemen, an alliance of anti-tax protesters, cheque forgers and embittered farmers whose leaders who are now under siege by the FBI at a remote ranch.

In Michigan, which earned a reputation as a militia hot bed after members performed military-style exercises for TV cameras, meetings still gather occasionally to burn the UN flag and rail against property taxes, said Richard Lobenthal, who runs the Michigan office of the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish-sponsored group that monitors racist and neo-Nazi organisations.

"They are still as much of a threat as they always were," he said. "Any time you've got twenty or thirty guys in semi-automatic guns ... there is a danger they will flip out."