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Waco Inquest: Confusion over fate of Ranch Apocalypse: The White House is struggling to explain the FBI decision to tear-gas the headquarters of the Branch Davidian cult

US GOVERNMENT officials yesterday offered increasingly confused and contradictory explanations for the decision to send tanks with tear-gas into the Branch Davidians' fortified compound, as they sought to distance themselves from the disaster.

As the bodies of cult members were removed from the smouldering remains of David Koresh's 'Ranch Apocalypse' in Texas, the world was treated to the spectacle of federal departments struggling to explain the circumstances leading to a tragedy many feel could have been avoided.

Evidence that the decision to launch a tear-gas attack on the compound was poorly thought out is deepening as the main participants - Janet Reno, the US Attorney-General, President Clinton and the Federal Bureau of Investigation - offer differing reasons for attacking the compound. It is becoming apparent that the operation went ahead before all parties were clear about the rationale.

President Clinton has said he gave his approval on Sunday after Ms Reno told him that she wanted to go ahead with the operation, ending a 51-day stand-off, because there was evidence that children inside the compound were 'still being abused and were increasingly unsafe'.

But Williams Sessions, the director of the FBI, and his commanders have denied that child abuse was a primary motive. 'There is nothing in any of the information which we got in recent days that there was a a greater physical threat to the children, other than disease or the general conditions inside the compound,' said Jeffrey Jamar, a Special Agent. Yesterday the White House added to the confusion by saying that the 'mountains of evidence' of abuse went back over some time - prompting speculation over why the FBI did not go in seven weeks ago, when the siege began.

If child abuse was not the reason for sending tanks in to tear-gas the compound in an attempt to end the siege, what was? The FBI has emphasised the risk of disease to the Branch Davidian children, caused by the insanitary conditions inside Koresh's heavily armed headquarters. But it is hard to believe that the highly disciplined cult members, who had access to water, were any more at risk than millions of America's urban poor. They included a registered nurse.

The FBI's other theme is a little more plausible, although it raises other disturbing questions. It says its highly trained hostage negotiating team, which has between 50 and 60 agents, was getting tired, as negotiations with the erratic and deceitful Koresh and his lieutenants dragged on fruitlessly.

A second question remains. Who started the fire that destroyed the fortified compound? The one common theme from the White House and the FBI is that Koresh was responsible for the blaze, and the ensuing slaughter. The FBI yesterday again said that the fire was set in at least three places, and denied a survivor's claim that it started because a military vehicle knocked over a lantern.

Jeff Kearney, a lawyer representing one of the nine survivors, said that the Davidians had no plans to burn down 'Ranch Apocalypse' or to commit mass suicide. They were waiting for Koresh to complete 'de-coding' a religious tract (the Seven Seals). 'I think it was clear to him and everybody else that as soon as Koresh had finished the manuscript they were all coming out,' he said. 'I think this intrusion into their residence was an unwarranted, vulgar abuse of power.'

Mr Kearney also said cult members were under instructions not to shoot - contradicting FBI statements that scores of rounds were fired at its forces as they pumped in tear-gas.

A third question is emerging from the ashes of the Waco tragedy. An unnamed federal official told the Dallas Morning News that FBI listening devices picked up the voices of cult members giving instructions about setting the fires. There is little doubt that the agency had bugged the compound. Why, then, did its agents not storm into the compound - which the FBI admits was a 'tinderbox' - as soon as they knew a fire was about to be lit?

(Photograph omitted)