Armed activists defy government in Oregon standoff

Armed activists defy government in Oregon standoff
PHOTO: Reuters

United States - A band of armed anti-government activists occupying a federal wildlife reserve in rural Oregon dug in for a fourth day Tuesday, after the ranchers they claimed to be defending denounced the siege and turned themselves in to the law.

The loose-knit band of farmers, ranchers and survivalists - who have dubbed themselves "citizens for constitutional freedom" - began the siege in protest at the jailing of Dwight Hammond, 73, and his son Steven, 46, convicted of arson for setting fire to federal land.

They have vowed to be peaceful so long as police don't take action, but say they are armed in case of armed intervention by the authorities.

Up to a hundred protesters are believed to be holed up at the snowy visitor's center for the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, which they took over to show solidarity with the Hammonds, and demand that a court rescind an order for their arrest.

The FBI is working with local law enforcement to bring a peaceful end to the standoff.

The rancher father and son who triggered the armed siege have firmly distanced themselves from it, and on Monday turned themselves in to begin serving their five-year sentence, which they condemned as "far too long."

They were being held at a federal prison in California, and announced they would seek rare clemency from President Barack Obama.

It was unclear whether their surrender to authorities would end the siege.

Police demanded that the remaining activists vacate the reserve.

"The Hammonds have turned themselves in. It is time for you to leave our community," Harney County Sheriff David Ward told reporters.

"Go home, be with your own families and end this peacefully."

He denounced the fact that "a peaceful protest became an armed and unlawful protest."

The Oregon protest is led by 40-year-old rancher Ammon Bundy. His father, a Nevada rancher named Cliven Bundy, was at the center of a previous armed standoff with government authorities in 2014, that time over grazing rights on public lands.

Bundy told reporters he was fighting for freedom for the Hammonds, saying they were harassed for refusing to sell their ranch to the government.

But Bundy and his brother Ryan are also urging the federal government to relinquish control of the Malheur reserve.

Sheriff Ward said the protesters' ultimate goal was "to overthrow the county and federal government in hopes to spark a movement across the United States."

The Hammonds have set themselves apart from the armed movement, and from Bundy in particular.

"They have litigated this matter within the federal courts for over five years and, in every instance, have followed the order of the court without incident or violation," their attorneys said in a statement.

The father and son have both already served several months in jail for arson, but a judge ordered them back to prison to serve the remainder of their five-year sentence after they lost an appeals court review.

The Hammonds were convicted after starting what they said was a controlled fire on their ranch in Harney County. The fire spread and consumed 139 acres (56 hectares) of federal land.

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.

So far, there has been no visible police presence at the reserve, where several armed men in vehicles guarded the entrance while others kept watch from a lookout tower.

School has been ncanceled in the area for the week, and the county courthouse was closed Monday "for security reasons."

Online, public opinion was sharply split on what was quickly dubbed the #Oregonstandoff, with many branding the takeover an act of domestic terrorism, while others saw an act of resistance against government oppression.

A Gallup poll released last month showed a majority of Americans view "big government" as the biggest threat to the nation in the future, when asked to choose between that, big labor and big business.

The theme has been embraced by the Republican party's contenders for the 2016 presidential nomination, who so far have been relatively silent on the siege - with the notable exception of Ted Cruz, who urged the protesters to stand down peaceably.

"Every one of us has a constitutional right to protest, to speak our minds," Cruz told reporters in Iowa.

"But we don't have a constitutional right to use force and violence and to threaten force and violence against others."

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