LOS ANGELES- A US rancher who has become an unlikely anti-government ring-leader begged forgiveness Friday for remarks criticised as racist, while insisting he was one of the most "non-racist people in America." Cliven Bundy, backed by armed right-wing activists in his standoff over cattle grazing rights in the western state of Nevada, defended his comments about African Americans and slavery.
"I hope I didn't offend anybody. If I did, I ask for your forgiveness," he said in a daily press conference streamed online. "But I meant what I said. It comes from the heart." "I'm probably one of the most non-racist people in America," he continued, suggesting his comments had been misinterpreted.
The 67-year-old has grazed his cattle on federal land managed by the US Bureau of Land Management for the last two decades, but refuses to pay grazing fees levied on all such ranchers across the country.
After years of legal action, federal officers began rounding up his cows this month - until a group of armed supporters came to the rancher's aid, triggering a standoff which ended with authorities withdrawing.
Bundy declared victory in his showdown with the federal forces, and began holding daily press conferences which have whipped up support from pro-gun and anti-big-government activists, among others.
But that changed when his rants - which have been backed by Republican politicians and publicized by right-wing pundits including notably Fox News' Sean Hannity - included some eye-popping remarks about African Americans.
"I want to tell you one more thing I know about the negro," he said in remarks reported by The New York Times.
"They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton.
"And I've often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things? Or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn't get no more freedom. They got less freedom." Cue a stampede for the door from many of his backers.
"His remarks on race are offensive, and I wholeheartedly disagree with him," said Rand Paul, seen as a possible Republican nominee for the US presidency in 2016.
Nevada Senator Dean Heller, who last week called Bundy's defenders "patriots," issued a statement saying he "completely disagrees with Mr. Bundy's appalling and racist statements, and condemns them in the most strenuous way."