An anti-government armed militia group have taken over a federal building in Oregon on Saturday afternoon, led by Ammon Bundy, a rancher from the local area.
Authorities are monitoring the situation as the group continue to occupy a remote federal wildlife refuge operated by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.
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The groups leader, Ammon Bundy, is a well known anti-government activist whose father inspired a standoff between local armed militia groups and federal officials who sought to confiscate illegal cattle grazing in 2014.
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On Saturday afternoon, Bundy’s group lit a bonfire by the federal building and draped an American flag over the sign.
The wildlife agency said no federal wildlife employees were in danger in the occupation. “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,” a Fish and Wildlife Service press officer said.
In a statement captured on video, Mr. Bundy said that his group was “prepared to be out here for as long as need be” and would only leave once the people of Harney County “can use these lands as free men.”
Standing for the rights of men & womenBREAKING! SHARE! Standing for the rights of Men & Women. Calling all freedom loving people to come to Harney County Oregon, come to the Malhuer Wildlife Refuge. The people are finally getting some good use out of a federal facility. Posted by Bundy Ranch on Saturday, January 2, 2016
“We’re out here because the people have been abused long enough really,” he continued. “Their lands and their resources have been taken from them to the point where it’s putting them literally in poverty, and this facility has been a tool in doing that. It is the people’s facility, owned by the people.”
The occupation began with a peaceful protest in which more than 100 people marched through downtown Burns to protest the prison sentence of two ranchers convicted of arson, Dwight Hammond, 73, and Steven Hammond, 46, who were to report to prison in California after a federal judge ruled that the sentences they had served for arson were not long enough under federal law. There were flowers and songs, according to local news reports.
Afterward, a group broke off and occupied the refuge headquarters.
Amanda Peacher, a reporter and producer for Oregon Public Broadcasting who was near the the wildlife refuge Sunday, posted pictures on Twitter of arriving militiamen bringing in supplies and blocking the refuge’s entrance.
— Amanda Peacher (@amandapeacher) January 3, 2016
Among the occupiers were Ammon and Ryan Bundy, two sons of Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher who became a symbol of anti-government sentiment in 2014, according to The Oregonian.
“We’re planning on staying here for years, absolutely,” Ammon Bundy told The Oregonian in a telephone interview. “This is not a decision we’ve made at the last minute.” The two men refused to provide details on how many people were taking part in the occupation, but militia members claim there are as many as 150 people at the refuge.
In a telephone interview Sunday morning with CNN, Mr. Bundy said his group wanted the federal government to restore the “people’s constitutional rights.”
“People need to be aware that we’ve become a system where government is actually claiming and using and defending people’s rights, and they are doing that against the people,” he said.
A lawyer for the Hammonds said, however, they did not welcome the Bundys’ help, according to The Associated Press.
“Neither Ammon Bundy nor anyone within his group/organization speak for the Hammond family,” the lawyer, W. Alan Schroeder, wrote to David Ward, the Harney County sheriff.
The Harney County sheriff’s office did not respond to several requests for comment.
In a video posted to Facebook on Thursday, Ammon Bundy called on the members of “different militia groups” to participate in the protest on Saturday.
Stand Up, Not Stand Down - All Patriot Stand Up, We need your ...**ALL PATRIOTS ITS TIME TO STAND UP NOT STAND DOWN!!! WE NEED YOUR HELP!!! COME PREPARED. Posted by Bundy Ranch on Thursday, December 31, 2015
“This is not a time to stand down,” he said. “It is a time to stand up and come to Harney County. We need your help and we are asking for it.”
The Hammonds admitted they lit fires in 2001 and 2006, but said it had been to protect their property from wildfires and invasive plant species, The A.P. said. They were convicted three years ago, and the father served three months in prison, while the son served one year.
The Harney County Sheriff’s Department said the Oregon State Police was handling the incident. Beth Anne Steele, a spokeswoman for the F.B.I. in Portland, said the agency was aware of the situation, but declined to comment further.
The Bundys have been organizing opposition to the government case against the Hammonds on social media in recent weeks, which they described as a tyrannical use of federal authority.
“We’re out here because the people have been abused long enough,” Ammon Bundy said in a separate video posted to Facebook on Saturday.
He called the prosecution of the Hammonds “a symptom of a very huge, egregious problem” that he described as a battle over land and resources between the federal government and “the American people.”
“The people cannot survive without their land and resources,” he said. “We cannot have the government restricting the use of that to the point that it puts us in poverty.”
Mr. Bundy described the federal building as “the people’s facility, owned by the people” and said his group was occupying it to take “a hard stand against this overreach, this taking of the people’s land and resources.”
He said the group would remain there indefinitely and told an interviewer that he hoped more supporters would join them. “We have a facility that we can house them in,” he said, referring to the occupied building.
“We pose no threat to anybody,” Mr. Bundy said. “There is no person that is physically harmed by what we are doing.” He added that if law enforcement officials “bring physical harm to us, they will be doing it only for a facility or a building.”
However, in an interview with The Oregonian earlier on Saturday evening, Mr. Bundy and his brother said they would not rule out violence if law enforcement officers attempted to remove them from the building.
“The facility has been the tool to do all the tyranny that has been placed upon the Hammonds,” Ammon Bundy told the newspaper. He said he planned to remain in the building for “years.”
Ian Kullgren, a reporter for The Oregonian, posted on Twitter that he had spoken by phone with Mr. Bundy on Sunday morning.
I talked to Ryan Bundy on the phone again. He said they’re willing to kill and be killed if necessary. #OregonUnderAttack
— Ian Kullgren (@IanKullgren) January 3, 2016
Cliven Bundy previously galvanized conservative critics of the federal government after a standoff with agents from the Bureau of Land Management, who attempted to confiscate cattle he had illegally grazed on federal land since 1993.