Scores of anti-government militiamen 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 on Sunday that the building’s seizure was an effort by the group to instigate a confrontation with authorities.
“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 Sunday night at the reserve, 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.
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.
They announced a press conference for Monday.
School was cancelled in the area for the week and the county courthouse said it would be closed Monday “for security reasons.”
On the Internet, public opinion was divided about the #Oregonstandoff.
“My instinct as conservative is law abiding,” wrote a Twitter user under the handle @steph93065.
“But when Fed Govt abuses people using the law, my instinct goes the other way.”
But others branded the takeover an act of domestic terrorism and called on the US government to deal harshly with the armed protesters.
“Why aren’t we calling the Oregon militia ‘terrorists?’ – because they are white and Christian. that’s why,” @StephenDybas tweeted.
One of the protest leaders is Ammon Bundy, the 40-year-old son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who was at the center of an armed, anti-government standoff with authorities in 2014 over grazing rights on public lands.
– ‘Long as it takes’ –
The younger Bundy, who spoke by phone to CNN on Sunday, called on the government to restore the “people’s constitutional rights.”
His brother Ryan and others in the group have demanded that the Hammonds, who have been ordered to report Monday to a federal prison, be spared jail and that the government relinquish control of the Malheur reserve.
It was unclear how many of the protesters, if any, were armed.
“We have no intentions of using force upon anyone, (but) if force is used against us, we would defend ourselves,” Ammon Bundy said.
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 fire consumed 139 acres of public land.
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, a group of demonstrators advanced on the sprawling Malheur reserve some 30 miles (50 kilometers) to the southeast, where wild horses, pronghorns (an antelope-like mammal) and other creatures roam free.
Ammon Bundy told The Oregonian by phone that the protesters had no intention of leaving anytime soon.
“We’re planning on staying here for years, absolutely,” he said.