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Militiamen in US State of Oregon Threaten Prolonged Armed Standoff

  • Ken Schwartz

FILE - In a video grab, members of a militia group in the northwestern U.S. state of Oregon are seen rallying in support of two ranchers they say have received an unjust court sentence.

FILE - In a video grab, members of a militia group in the northwestern U.S. state of Oregon are seen rallying in support of two ranchers they say have received an unjust court sentence.

A group of anti-government militiamen, who took over a federal wildlife center in the northwestern U.S. state of Oregon Saturday, say they are prepared to carry out an armed standoff with authorities "for years."

The militiamen - a loosely-organized group of ranchers, farmers, and so-called survivalists - are led by Ammon Bundy, whose family was at the center of another standoff in 2014 over grazing rights on federal lands.

About 100 people are part of the group at the wildlife refuge.

"We will be here as long as it takes," Bundy told reporters Sunday. "We have no intentions of using force upon anyone. If force is used against us, we would defend ourselves."

Bundy’s statements can be viewed in a video on the Bundy Ranch’s Facebook page.

Bundy and his supporters seized the offices of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, near the town of Burns, to protest a federal judge's order to re-sentence two ranchers to five years in prison for setting fire on federal land in Oregon in 2012.

Court ruling at center of dispute

The ranchers - Dwight Lincoln Hammond and his son Steven - admitted they set the fires. But they say they were trying to burn out invasive plant species on their own property and that the flames accidentally spread to the federal land.

But witnesses testified that the Hammonds illegally killed deer on government property and handed out matches to other hunters urging them to light them and drop them anywhere to "set the whole country on fire."

An Oregon court decided that the mandatory five-year prison term for burning federal land is unconstitutional and sentenced the Hammonds to much shorter terms.

But a federal appeals court ruled in October that the minimum five year terms are not too harsh and proportionate to the crime. The court ordered the Hammonds back to prison Monday, with credit for time already served.

A Hammond family statement says the two men only want to turn themselves in and serve out their prison terms. The family says no "patriot group or individual has the right or authority to force an armed standoff... against their wishes."

Government 'abusing power'

The anti-government militiamen who took over the wildlife center say they are infuriated by the decision to send the Hammonds back to prison.

After a peaceful protest in Burns Saturday, they took over the refuge's offices, which were closed at the time. News photos show the militiamen moving fuel and food onto the refuge as if preparing for a long stay.

A sign in front of the occupied refuge building accuses the government of "doing what they do best, ABUSING POWER."

Militiaman Bundy and his father Cliven held a month-long armed standoff with federal authorities in 2014 over unpaid fees for letting their cattle graze on federal land.

Bundy told CNN television Sunday he wants the federal government to restore what he calls the "people's constitutional rights," accusing authorities of tyranny by illegally confiscating private property for public use.

"The people cannot survive without their land and resources. We cannot have the government restricting the use of that to the point that it puts us in poverty."

Bundy called the wildlife refuge center a "people's facility, owned by the people."

There are 560 national wildlife refuges in the United States. They are large tracts of land that are set aside by the federal government to protect wildlife species and their habitats. Oregon’s Malheur Refuge was established in 1908 by president Theodore Roosevelt.

Federal law enforcement officials, including the FBI, have not yet commented on the Oregon standoff. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe called the occupation illegal and says no employees were in the center when the militiamen took over. The Fish and Wildlife Service oversees the refuges.

Harney Country Oregon sheriff Dave Ward is urging people to stay away from the area.

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