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Friday, August 27, 1999 Published at 05:52 GMT 06:52 UK

World: Americas

Koresh and the Waco siege

The Waco compound: Home of the Branch Davidians

By BBC News Online's Kevin Anderson in Washington

David Koresh, the leader of the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, thought he was an angel and an agent of God.

The government thought he was a gun-hoarding criminal who physically and sexually abused the several children he fathered with his followers.

And although he died with almost 80 of his followers in a fire during an FBI assault on their compound six years ago, ongoing questions about the raid have given the charismatic religious leader immortality in the press.

The prophet king

Koresh was born Vernon Wayne Howell in Houston Texas in 1959.

[ image: David Koresh: Charismatic leadership ended in disaster]
David Koresh: Charismatic leadership ended in disaster
His childhood was difficult. He never knew his father and was raised by his grandparents.

He suffered from dyslexia and the taunts of his schoolmates, and by the ninth grade, he dropped out of school.

Despite being a poor student, he was keenly interested in the Bible, and by the age of 12 had memorised large parts of it.

After travelling to Hollywood in a failed attempt to become a rock star, he joined the Branch Davidians in 1981.

Koresh became involved in a power struggle for leadership of the group. He left with a group of followers, but in 1987, he returned with seven of his disciples.

They were armed with five .223 calibre semi-automatic assault rifles, two .22 calibre rifles, two 12-gauge shotguns and 400 rounds of ammunition.

The leader of the group, George Roden, was wounded in the attack, and Koresh and the seven followers were tried on charges of attempted murder.

The seven followers were acquitted, and in the case of Koresh, a mistrial was declared.

By 1990, he had become the head of the Branch Davidians.

The history of the Davidians

The Branch Davidians descend from a schism in the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Koresh's mother was a member of the church, and he was a member for a short time as well.

The schism in the Seventh-Day Adventists began in the 1930s when Victor Houteff, a prominent Adventist in Los Angeles, wrote a book saying the church had become lax.

Mr Houteff's Davidian Seventh-day Adventists began to fall apart after his death in 1955. His widow Florence took over the group, but when Christ did not return as she predicted on Easter Day of 1959, most of the followers left.

A core group remained, a power struggle ensued, and a man named Ben Roden declared himself the leader of a new group, the Branch Davidians.

Preparing for the end

After Koresh took control of the group, he annulled the marriages of his followers, according to former members of the cult. He said that only he could be married. Several members left.

The former followers told authorities that Koresh would beat the children until they were bruised and bleeding. Social workers investigated but could never confirm the charges.

For the remaining followers, they prepared for the end of the world.

Koresh said that the Apocalypse would begin when the American army attacked Mount Carmel, their compound outside of Waco.

They buried a school bus to serve as a bunker and stockpiled food and ammunition.

Chronology of a showdown

The showdown between the government and the cult began on Sunday, 28 February, 1993, when agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms attempted to arrest Koresh on charges of illegal firearms and explosives charges.

[ image: The authorities buzzed the compound day and night to deny the inhabitants sleep]
The authorities buzzed the compound day and night to deny the inhabitants sleep
It has not been determined who fired first, but gunfire erupted.

Four ATF agents were killed, another 16 were wounded and an undetermined number of Davidians were killed and wounded. Koresh later disclosed that he had been wounded.

The FBI took control of the situation, and President Clinton endorsed a negotiated settlement.

Negotiations began the next day, and 10 children were released. The FBI moved armoured vehicles to the compound's perimeter.

The armoured vehicles and their movements would anger Koresh throughout the siege.

[ image: Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents were heavily armed]
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents were heavily armed
The day after the first gun battle, Koresh made a tape of his teachings and promised to surrender if the recording was broadcast nationally.

The tape was broadcast on the Christian Broadcasting Network, but Koresh said that God had told him to wait.

Negotiations continued over the next several days, but Koresh refused to surrender. He made rambling religious statements interspersed with threats of violence.

The FBI became concerned that the Davidians would commit mass suicide. Over the next 51 days, negotiations went back and forth.

[ image: The FBI maintain the deadly fire was started by the cult members themselves]
The FBI maintain the deadly fire was started by the cult members themselves
On 12 March, Janet Reno was sworn in as attorney general.

On the same day, the FBI decided to cut off electricity to the compound until the stand off ended.

On 9 April, Koresh sent a letter to the FBI saying that the "heavens are calling you to judgement."

The FBI enlisted experts to analyse the letter. They concluded Koresh had no intention of leaving voluntarily.

The FBI finalised plans to use tear gas against the Davidians and sought the approval of Janet Reno. After consulting army anti-terrorism experts, she approved the plan on 17 April.

Ms Reno briefed President Clinton the next day, and he concurred but also expressed concerns about the children's safety.

On Sunday 18 April, as armoured vehicles cleared cars from the front of the compound, the Davidians held children up in the windows of a tower on the compound and a sign saying: "Flames Await."

On Monday 19 April, the FBI notified the Davidians of the imminent tear gas assault. The Davidians begin shooting shortly after the gas attack began shortly after 6 a.m.

The gas attack continued for several hours, and the armoured vehicles begin smashing holes in the buildings.

At noon, several fires started within the compound. Shortly thereafter, nine Davidians fled the compound.

The FBI continues to maintain that members of the cult started the fires.

Fire-fighting efforts began, but the wooden structures quickly became engulfed. Koresh and 76 followers, including more than 20 children, died.

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