The arrival of M-1A1 Abrams tanks outside the Branch Davidian compound suggests that the sect may be armed with shoulder-fired anti-tank weapons or perhaps a .50-caliber machine gun with armor-piercing bullets, experts say.
Such weapons could damage or even destroy the armored personnel carriers that arrived early last week to support the federal agents who surround the compound near Waco, Texas.
Federal agents said yesterday that sect leader David Koresh claimed he could blow the armored vehicles, known as Bradley Fighting Vehicles, "40 or 50 feet into the air" with explosives. The Bradleys apparently were withdrawn yesterday morning as at least four Abrams tanks arrived.
Koresh - seemingly eager to fulfill his apocalyptic prophesies - boasted of having powerful explosives. "We are ready for war," the 33-year-old cult leader and self-proclaimed messiah was quoted by the FBI as saying.
The 67-ton Abrams tanks, the Army's heaviest, were rolled into position outside the Branch Davidians' compound strictly to give law officers protection, FBI spokesman Bob Ricks said. The tanks will be unarmed, he said.
One possible explanation for the change in armor is that federal agents "have intelligence that the equipment the Davidians have is a little heavier than we've known about and includes weapons such as armor-piercing .50-caliber rounds, or rocket-propelled grenades, or shoulder-fired anti-tank weapons that the Bradley would be
vulnerable to," said Ron Hatchett, a military analyst with Texas A & M University's Mosher Institute for Defense Studies.
"And they don't want another embarrassment," he added. "You can imagine the embarrassment if they went forward with a couple of Bradleys and they were knocked out by the Davidians."
While not common, anti-tank weapons are available on the black market. Law-enforcement officials say that some have been smuggled off military bases or stolen from National Guard armories. Experts do not rule out the possibility that some foreign weapons may have entered the United States with U.S. troops returning from the Persian Gulf War.
"If you have the money, you can buy a lot of things," Hatchett said.
Hatchett said the Abrams tank is better able to withstand such weapons.
"They're not going to do much of anything to the M-1 under any kinds of circumstances," Bay said.
The M-1A1 Abrams is protected by a top-secret armor and is more than double the weight of a Bradley.
If federal agents decide to "mount an assault and want to collapse portions of the building, then the M-1 would be better for that," Hatchett added.
Ricks, the FBI spokesman, said Koresh seemed to be increasingly irritable. "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 the opportunity to save yourselves before you get blown away.' "
Negotiators agreed yesterday to let the cult bury one member killed in a shootout. The victim's identity was being withheld.
Ricks said negotiators have talked with 33 people inside the compound. "Those that we spoke with on each occasion verified that Mr. Koresh had indicated that these individuals were free to leave at any time," he said. "And we got confirmation that they were staying there on their own free will."
However, negotiators also talked with a woman who said she and her five children would like to leave, but those talks broke down, Ricks said.
Today, a judge continued state custody of the 21 children who have been released since the stalemate began. About 30 relatives from as far away as Britain and Australia were in court to seek temporary custody of the children, who range from 5 months to 12 years.
Two elderly women who came out of the compound with the children last week were released from custody, Ricks said. They were first charged with murder, but those charges were quickly dismissed.
-- Material from the Associated Press is included in this report.