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'Ready for War,' Defiant Leader of Cult Tells FBI

March 09, 1993|LOUIS SAHAGUN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WACO, Tex. — Cult leader David Koresh has told federal agents surrounding his Mt. Carmel fortress that he is "ready for war" and controls enough firepower to blow Bradley armored personnel carriers "50 feet into the air," the FBI said Monday.

Federal authorities responded to Koresh's provocations by calling in reinforcements, including four M-1 Abrams tanks. The tanks will protect hundreds of federal agents positioned about a half-mile from the Branch Davidian sect's compound, FBI Agent Bob Ricks said at a news conference.

"He (Koresh) has indicated he would be most pleased if we would engage in a gun battle with him," Ricks said. "He has made such statements as, 'We are ready for war. Let's get it on. Your talk is becoming in vain. I'm going to give you an opportunity to save yourselves before you get blown away.' "

"His exact words were, 'We can cause those vehicles to go 40 or 50 feet into the air,' " Ricks said. "There may be explosives and perhaps even rockets in the compound."

One negotiations expert said that Koresh's increasing arrogance, irritability and heated rhetoric suggest that he is fearful of coming under attack and of losing control over the 89 adults and 17 children with whom he has been holed up nine days.

"They are the kind of statements people make when they are afraid and may have been motivated by his fear of an assault," said Peter DiVasto of Albuquerque, head of the U.S. Energy Department's hostage negotiations program. "If I were hearing that from a perpetrator in a typical situation I might be led to think he's becoming afraid and trying to muster his folks around him via these rallying cries."

However, Koresh's intransigence has made federal authorities wonder whether the 33-year-old polygamist and self-proclaimed messiah is planning a violent end to his bloody standoff with federal officers. The confrontation began Feb. 28 when U.S. firearms agents tried to arrest Koresh on firearms violations.

In addition to four U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents, at least three cult members were killed in a 45-minute gun battle that erupted shortly after the agents raided the compound, authorities said.

On Monday, U.S. firearms agents raided two storage sheds about five miles from the Branch Davidian compound, expecting to find a cache of weapons and explosive devices, but the raid yielded a small quantity of shotgun shells, authorities said.

In recent days, cult members have pointed machine gun barrels out of ports carved through the walls of buildings in the compound, which is dominated by a watchtower and protected by a security floodlight system switched on by movements anywhere near it, authorities said.

Negotiations over a request that federal agents deliver milk needed by children inside the compound broke down Sunday night "when they told us, in effect, to go make ourselves a milkshake," Ricks said.

Meanwhile, surveillance of daily activity inside the sect's farm complex indicates "what appears to be continual fortification," Ricks said.

"From conversations that have been reported to me," Ricks said, "the people in the compound are thoroughly committed to this endeavor and they are willing to die for their leader."

Current contingency plans do not include a rescue attempt because such a move "would be counterproductive and play right into his hands," Ricks said.

"It's our belief that he believes his prophecy will be fulfilled if the government engages in an all-out firefight with him, in which he is executed," Ricks said. "An all-out gun battle would ensure that his purpose would be accomplished."

That assumption, coupled with intelligence reports that cult members have stockpiled automatic weapons, explosives and possibly even rockets, prompted the Defense Department to give agents the tanks, which are more heavily armored than the Bradley personnel carriers already on the scene.

"These Abrams will not be armed in any way," Ricks said. "They are strictly for defensive purposes to ensure any armaments inside the compound will not be sufficient to cause harm to our agents . . . . We do not think that they can harm us by firing at the tanks we have in place."

However, there was some speculation that the tanks were moved in as a contingency, in case federal agents decided to end the standoff by simply overrunning the compound and knocking it down.

Rob Hatchett, director of the Mosier Institute of International Studies at Texas A&M University and an expert in terror tactics, said the tanks could destroy the ramshackle buildings and cause enough confusion to avoid an all-out armed assault.

"They may be thinking of knocking that house over their heads," he said.

Amid the saber rattling, Koresh has won permission from federal authorities to conduct a funeral and burial service for a follower who was killed during the aborted raid on Feb. 28, authorities said.

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