US standoff at wildlife refuge turns violent, one dead

A three-week standoff between police and anti-government protesters at an Oregon wildlife refuge exploded into violence, with the group’s apparent spokesman killed by gunfire and the ringleader among eight taken into custody.

The status of the occupation by ranchers and farmers angry over federal land management policies remained unclear Wednesday, with some protesters still reportedly at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in a rural part of the state.

Details of the operation that led to Tuesday’s shooting — apparently as police arrested occupation participants driving on an icy highway to a meeting with local people — also were murky.

The FBI and local authorities were due to give a press conference at 10:30 am (1830 GMT) to offer further details.

The bloodshed provided a dramatic twist to a standoff that has been quietly simmering for weeks after first grabbing headlines.

Ammon Bundy, the rancher who led the initial January 2 occupation in the northwestern state, was among five people arrested when federal agents and state troopers stopped vehicles carrying the activists on a remote highway, the FBI said.

Bundy, 40, and the others face a federal felony charge “of conspiracy to impede officers of the United States from discharging their official duties through the use of force, intimidation, or threats,” the FBI said in a statement.

During the arrest operation, “there were shots fired,” the statement read.

After the highway incident, the FBI and Oregon state police arrested two other men in Burns, the town nearest to the refuge.

An eighth person, 32-year-old Jon Ritzheimer, surrendered to police in the southwestern state of Arizona on the same charge, police said.

Authorities did not immediately identify the dead person. But The Oregonian newspaper said it was group spokesman Robert “LaVoy” Finicum.

The FBI said another person suffered non-life threatening injuries and was rushed to a hospital before being arrested.

The group was stopped on the highway while traveling in two vehicles, CNN reported.

Apparently two men — including Bundy’s 43-year-old brother Ryan — disobeyed orders when agents stopped the cars and resisted arrest, resulting in shots being fired, The Oregonian said.

The Bundy brothers are the sons of Cliven Bundy, 69, a vitriolic anti-government activist who in 2014 engaged in an armed standoff with federal authorities over unpaid cattle grazing fees at his Nevada ranch.

Cliven Bundy confirmed Finicum’s death on his Facebook page, saying that he “was Shot and murdered in Cold blood today in Burns Oregon” (sic) by the FBI and state police.

– Governor urges calm –

The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is located some 30 miles (48 kilometers) away from Burns, which has a population of 3,000.

Malheur Refuge occupier Jason Patrick told The Oregonian that the site was quiet. But he added: “We’re all standing here ready to defend our peaceful resolution.”

Local radio reports said that neighbors were being urged to leave the area around the refuge.

Last week, some 30 people, including women and children, were at the site, but it was unclear how many were present on Wednesday.

Oregon Governor Kate Brown urged calm.

“The situation in Harney County continues to be the subject of a federal investigation that is in progress,” she said in a statement. “I ask for patience as officials continue pursuit of a swift and peaceful resolution.”

The gunmen originally took over the Malheur reserve in protest over the jailing of two local ranchers, Dwight Hammond and his son Steven, who were convicted of arson.

Their demands soon grew to include calls for the government to turn over area federal land to local ranchers. In Oregon, nearly 53 percent of the land is federally owned.

The Hammonds distanced themselves from the movement and voluntarily began their scheduled prison sentences after the occupation began.

Several members of the local community, notably the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, had condemned the takeover of the reserve, while expressing sympathy for the Hammonds.

On January 11, the protesters destroyed fencing surrounding the reserve.

Ammon Bundy has said they were acting at the request of a rancher who wanted to graze his cattle on the property.

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