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An armed militia has taken over a federal building in the US state of Oregon, vowing to occupy the outpost for years to protest at the federal government's treatment of a pair of ranchers facing prison time.
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Activists occupy Oregon Wildlife Refuge
A group of activists and militia members occupy the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters in the US, protesting the federal prosecution of two ranchers.
The occupation of a portion of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge nearly 50 kilometres south-east of Burns, Oregon, followed a peaceful march for ranchers Dwight Hammond, 73, and Steven Hammond, 46, who are scheduled to report to federal prison in San Pedro, California, on Monday after being convicted of arson, the Oregonian reported.
Prosecutors said the father and son set the fire, which burned more than 50 hectares of leased federal land in 2001, to conceal poaching, according to CNN. The Hammonds argued they were attempting to reduce the growth of invasive plant species and ward off potential wildfires. The Hammonds were sentenced to five years in prison.
Among the occupiers are several members of the Bundy family, whose patriarch, Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, was involved in an armed standoff with government agents over grazing rights in 2014.
Ammon Bundy told the Oregonian he and two of his brothers had joined dozens of people in seizing the refuge's headquarters late on Saturday.
The federal property, managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, was closed and unoccupied for the holiday weekend.
Ryan Bundy told the Oregonian the group was not holding hostages and did not want to resort to violence but would not rule it out if authorities attempted to remove the occupiers from the property. He said many of the occupiers would be willing to fight – and die – to reclaim constitutionally protected rights for local land management, according to the Associated Press.
The group is calling for the Hammonds' release and said the militia was planning an occupation that lasted "for years".
"The best possible outcome is that the ranchers that have been kicked out of the area, then they will come back and reclaim their land, and the wildlife refuge will be shut down forever and the federal government will relinquish such control," Ryan Bundy told the Oregonian. "What we're doing is not rebellious. What we're doing is in accordance with the constitution, which is the supreme law of the land."
In a video interview with reporters on Saturday that was posted on Ammon Bundy's Facebook page, he said the group was standing up against government "overreach" because "the people have been abused long enough".
"I feel we are in a situation where if we do not do something, if we do not take a hard stand, we'll be in a position where we'll be no longer able to do so," he said.
A video posted on the Facebook page days earlier urged militia members from all over the country to join him:
"**ALL PATRIOTS ITS TIME TO STAND UP NOT STAND DOWN!!! WE NEED YOUR HELP!!! COME PREPARED."
Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward urged the public to stay away from the area as authorities worked to resolve the standoff.
"A collective effort from multiple agencies is currently working on a solution," Sheriff Ward said in a statement reported by the Oregonian. "For the time being, please stay away from that area. More information will be provided as it becomes available. Please maintain a peaceful and united front and allow us to work through this situation."
An FBI spokeswoman in Portland, Beth Anne Steele, said the bureau was aware of the situation at the wildlife refuge, but she declined further comment.
A US Fish and Wildlife Service spokesperson saidthe agency and the Bureau of Land Management were monitoring the armed protesters.
"While the situation is ongoing, the main concern is employee safety, and we can confirm that no federal staff were in the building at the time of the initial incident," the spokesperson said. "We will continue to monitor the situation."
Late on Saturday, the occupiers blocked the entrance of the federal headquarters with a truck and placed a US flag over the welcome sign, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting.
"We are not hurting anybody or damaging any property," Ammon Bundy told OPB. "We would expect that they understand that we have given them no reason to use lethal force upon us, or any other force."
Ron Gainer, the owner of a nearby caravan park who dropped off some food for the occupiers, told the broadcaster he counted about 15 people, half a dozen vehicles and a trailer at the site. The estimate differed sharply from the Bundy family accounting, which put the number of people at the refuge about 150, according to OPB.
By nightfall, the temperature had plummeted to -12 degrees, prompting occupiers to bundle around a campfire, the broadcaster noted. Some of those present identified themselves as nearby residents and supporters of the convicted ranchers.
Asked by a reporter how many militia members were at the headquarters, Ammon Bundy said: "I will not disclose – operational security."
Cliven Bundy said on Saturday night he was not involved in the standoff, but he struck a sympathetic tone.
"That's not exactly what I thought should happen, but I didn't know what to do," he said. "You know, if the Hammonds wouldn't stand, if the sheriff didn't stand, then, you know, the people had to do something. And I guess this is what they did decide to do. I wasn't in on that."