When loudspeakers were set up on top of the house more than two years ago, hurling curses and death threats into the night, residents of Osage Avenue complained to police and city officials.

When they saw men carrying guns on the roof of MOVE's row house, they complained. When they saw truckloads of dirt carted away from the house, they complained, fearing that tunnels were being dug.

When they saw steel beams, lead pipes and tree trunks carried into the house for fortification, and when they saw a rooftop bunker under construction, again they complained.

"We tried to tell them what was happening," said Mattie Coles, 73, who lived four doors down from MOVE. "But nobody listened. We had two meetings with the mayor, and he kept saying the MOVE people hadn't broken no laws."

Now, in the aftermath of the confrontation that left 53 houses burnt to the ground and 11 MOVE members dead, Philadelphians are asking: Did it have to come to this?

"Those in authority waited too long before taking action, allowing MOVE members the luxury of months to create a fortress on Osage," the Philadelphia Daily News editorialized today.

Police and city officials "looked the other way while MOVE stockpiled weapons and intimidated neighbors and made threats and violated all manner of city regulations," columnist Jill Porter wrote. "That led inexorably to the standoff that turned a neighborhood to rubble."

Indeed, the radical cult's preparations for open warfare were hardly clandestine: Mayor W. Wilson Goode, other city officials and the police, who had stationed undercover surveillance officers in the neighborhood for two years, were fully aware of MOVE's activities, but apparently feared the consequences of confrontation.

"This city knows MOVE," Goode said Tuesday. "We know them as a group dedicated to the destruction of our way of life . . . . We watched them for three years turn a neighborhood of peaceful homeowners into chaos and frustration . . . . They turned a peaceful block into an armed camp."

District Attorney Edward Rendell told Goode in a 16-page memo a year ago that there were legal grounds -- incitement to riot, terrorist threats -- to issue search warrants for group members, he said in an interview today.

"But we didn't say it was tactically appropriate," he added, noting that the city wanted to avoid bloodshed after a 1978 confrontation with MOVE during which a police officer was killed. Nine MOVE members were convicted in the slaying.

Last May, two dozen officers surrounded the MOVE row house after seeing a man brandishing a shotgun on the roof, but they left after 90 minutes. No shots were fired.

"We don't want to do anything that would cause an unnecessary confrontation," Goode said at the time. As for the rats and filth that violated city housing codes, Goode said, "I prefer to have dirt and some smell than to have bloodshed."

In August, residents of the block were evacuated after MOVE threatened violence, over the loudspeakers, to force the release of its nine members from prison. But after a day, nothing happened, so police withdrew and residents returned to their homes.

During the winter, MOVE continued to fortify the house. In February, with MOVE owing $1,000 in electric bills and $500 in water bills, a city water inspector visited the house and was threatened by MOVE members.

The city's water shutoff crew told supervisors it wouldn't "touch the case."

In April, the loudspeaker threats resumed, with MOVE members shouting that they would kill children in the neighborhood if residents spoke to police.

Frustrated by the refusal of city officials to act and a lack of attention from the news media other than black radio stations, Osage Avenue residents held an emotional news conference May 1, warning that they would take matters into their own hands.

Still, Goode told reporters, "We do not perceive that there is any violation on which we can make an arrest."

In an interview today, however, Barry Steinhardt, executive director of the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said: "I don't believe there has ever been any legal impediment to move against them. The mayor was concerned about the possibility of an armed confrontation."

Nan Chainey, 51, a resident who said she had complained countless times to the city, as well as to Goode during a meeting last year, said: "The mayor didn't believe nothing we said until the May 1 news conference. That's when he found out we meant business."

On May 8, Harold Nichols Jr., a neighborhood leader, disrupted a Goode news conference, asking, "Are you waiting for someone to be killed to act on that, Mr. Mayor?"

Now, in the aftermath of the assault plan that so drastically backfired, Goode has called on the city not to "go back and cry over spilled milk. We are all very big people, and we have to understand that sometimes we win and sometimes we lose."