By Giles Elgood

Washington - At its height, there were 200 local, state and federal agents in the hunt for Eric Robert Rudolph.

But when the end came, it was a rookie cop who had been in the job less than year who brought in the FBI's most notorious American fugitive.

Rudolph, 36, had been hiding out for five years in the mountains of North Carolina, apparently using his skills as an outdoorsman to evade agents anxious to bring him to book for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bombing. He is also suspected of bombing abortion clinics and a gay nightclub.

Last seen in July 1998, Rudolph spent years embarrassing the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the federal agencies that led the search through the more than 200 000 hectares of the rugged Nantahala National Forest.

Agents searched the thick forests and mountain ridges, but all they could find were campsites where Rudolph appeared to have buried empty tuna cans and other trash.

Apart from an incident when he obtained provisions from the owner of a health food store, the only evidence that Rudolph was still in the mountains came in the form of reports of prowlers, dogs barking at night and food missing from cabins.

James Cavanaugh, ATF Special Agent in Charge in Nashville, who has been been closely involved in the case, described Rudolph as a man clearly acting on his own.

"He has been somewhat elusive," Cavanaugh told Reuters in a telephone interview. "A lone-wolf type of person."

He evaded agents for so long because he was not in contact with anybody. "Nobody knew where he was," Cavanaugh said.

Helicopter surveillance and high-tech heat and motion sensors were unable to track him. Local people joked that the blundering federal agents were more likely to be accidentally shot by bear hunters than find their own quarry.

There were even suggestions he might have been helped by local people with sympathy for his anti-government beliefs.

"There are people here who really liked him and agreed with him on abortion and other issues. They aren't glad that he has been caught," said Bill Gatti, 45, from the Murphy area.

He knew women who had gone to school with Rudolph, who was considered a very good-looking young man.

"I wouldn't be surprised if they had been hiding him," Gatti said.

Run, Rudolph, Run T-shirts were hot sellers in local stores.

He had no bank account or credit card and he used a false name to register his pickup truck.

The FBI described Rudolph as a loner who could survive for long periods on his own. His background as an outdoorsman and survivalist, hiking through woods dotted with caves and abandoned gem mines, had prepared him for life on the run.

What got him there was probably his unorthodox family background and his espousal of white supremacist, anti-Semitic, homophobic and xenophobic beliefs that led him to a religious group known as Christian Identity.

The movement opposes abortion and sees whites as God's chosen people, who must prepare for a race war. Hatred of the Olympics, an example of globalism and racial integration, would fit in with such beliefs, human rights workers believe.

Rudolph's mother, Patricia, moved the family to Nantahala from Florida in 1981 and they carved out a self-sufficient life, neighbours recalled in newspaper interviews.

While one of Rudolph's brothers, Jamie, achieved some prominence in the New York music scene, another sibling achieved a brief moment of fame in much more gruesome fashion.

In March 1998, Daniel Rudolph videotaped himself cutting off his own hand with a circular saw to send an undisclosed message to federal agents searching for his brother.