Self-styled militia group joins Oregon occupation, could raise tensions

Leader of a group of armed protesters Ammon Bundy talks to the media at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon, January 8, 2016. REUTERS / Jim Urquhart

By Jonathan Allen

BURNS, Ore. (Reuters) – Several members of self-described militia groups have joined armed protesters occupying the headquarters of a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon, threatening to raise tensions in the week-long siege over land rights.

One of those organizations, the Pacific Patriots Network, issued a “call to action” for its members to establish a safety perimeter around the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in remote southeastern Oregon as leaders of the protest again said they had no immediate plans to leave.

“We wish to establish a safety perimeter of protection for the occupiers so as to prevent a Waco-style situation from unfolding during this peaceful occupation,” leaders of the group said in a statement posted on its website.

“That’s really the point of militias: it’s community involvement,” Brandon Rapolla, a member of Pacific Patriot Network, told Reuters in an interview near a building being used by Ammon Bundy and his brother, Ryan, to run the occupation. “If something happens in your community, that’s what militias are for.”

The Pacific Patriot Network earlier in the standoff said it did not support seizing federal property.

In 1993 federal agents laid siege to a compound in Waco, Texas, being held by the Branch Davidians religious group for 51 days before the standoff ended in a gun battle and fire in April of that year. Four federal agents and more than 80 members of the group died, including 23 children.

Some two dozen armed protesters have occupied the headquarters of the refuge since last Saturday, marking the latest incident in the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion, a decades-old conflict over federal control of land and resources in the U.S. West.

The move followed a demonstration in support of two local ranchers, Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son Steven, who were returned to prison earlier this week for setting fires that spread to federal land.

A lawyer for Hammond family has said that the occupiers do not speak for the family.

Ammon Bundy met briefly with Harney County Sheriff David Ward on Thursday but rejected the lawman’s offer of safe passage out of the state to end the standoff.

During a press conference on Friday morning, Bundy seemed to soften his position slightly, saying: “We will take that offer but not yet and we will go out of this county and out of this state as free.”

Both Bundy and the sheriff have said that the two sides would talk again on Friday.

Following Bundy’s press conference on Friday morning a lands right activist opposed to the occupation spoke to the media.

“This is about furthering an extremist right-wing agenda,” Barrett Kaiser, a Montana resident and a representative of the Center for Western Priorities, said angrily, as supporters of Bundy tried to interrupt him and argue with him. “They need to be charged and prosecuted.”

Local residents have expressed a mixture of sympathy for the Hammond family, suspicion of the federal government’s motives and frustration with the occupation.

The leaders of the armed occupation are Ammon Bundy and his brother, Ryan Bundy. Their father, Cliven Bundy, along with a band of armed men, stared down federal agents trying to seize his livestock in Nevada in 2014. Many of the other occupiers also are from outside Oregon.

The Bundys say they want the federal government to turn over its land holdings in the area to local authorities and that they will leave after they have accomplished their goal.

Federal law enforcement agents and local police have so far kept away from the occupied site, maintaining no visible presence outside the park in a bid to avoid a violent confrontation.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen in Burns, Oregon; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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