Militia in standoff at US wildlife reserve

2016-01-04 12:32
Armed protesters occupy a building at the wildlife refuge in Oregon. (Les Saitz, AP)

Armed protesters occupy a building at the wildlife refuge in Oregon. (Les Saitz, AP)

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Burns - Scores of anti-government militiamen have occupied a wildlife reserve in the US state of Oregon for a second night, warning that their protest against the jailing of two ranchers, which has divided Americans, could last months.

The group - thought to number up to 100 - began occupying the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Reserve in southeastern Oregon on Saturday after a rally in support of ranchers Dwight Hammond, 73, and his son Steven, 46, who were jailed over fires on federal land in the area.

The local sheriff's department said in a statement that the building's seizure was an effort by the group to instigate a confrontation with authorities.

Spark a movement

"These men came to Harney County claiming to be part of militia groups supporting local ranchers, when in reality these men had alternative motives to attempt to overthrow the county and federal government in hopes to spark a movement across the United States," said the statement from David Ward, sheriff of Harney County, where the refuge is located.

He added that efforts were under way to resolve the standoff "as quickly and peaceful as possible."

However, there was no visible police presence at the reserve on Sunday night, where several militiamen in vehicles guarded the entrance while others kept watch from a lookout tower.

There have also been no reports so far of any confrontation around the facility, which was closed when the militia moved in.

The Oregonian news website reported that the FBI was handling the case.

Controlled fire

The protestors holed up inside the refuge - a loose-knit grouping of anti-government farmers, ranchers and survivalists - said they planned no violence but would not rule it out if authorities stormed the site.

Schools closed in the area and the county courthouse said it would be closed "for security reasons" on Monday.

The Hammonds were convicted of arson after lighting what they said was a controlled fire on their ranch in Harney County that spread to government land.

But witnesses at their trial said that Steven Hammond had illegally slaughtered deer on federal property during a hunting expedition and then handed out matches in order to "light up the whole country on fire," according to a Justice Department statement.

The pair were freed after the father had served three months in prison and his son had served a year, according to local media.

When a judge, in an appeal, ruled in October that a five-year sentence was justified and ordered them back to prison to serve the balance, militia groups responded angrily.

After a peaceful rally Saturday in the town of Burns on Saturday, a group of demonstrators advanced on the sprawling Malheur reserve about 50km to the southeast, where wild horses and pronghorns (an antelope-like mammal) and other creatures roam free.

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