Leader of a group of armed protesters Ammon Bundy talks to the media at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon
By Jonathan Allen
BURNS, Ore. (Reuters) - Members of self-styled militia groups met on Friday with armed protesters occupying a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon, pledging support for their cause, if not their methods, and offering to act as a peace-keeping force in the week-long standoff over land rights.
During the 30-minute meeting at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, a leader of the occupation, Ammon Bundy, told about a dozen representatives of such groups as Pacific Patriots Network, Oath Keepers and III% that he had no immediate plans to abandon the siege.
"I was asked to do this by the Lord," said Bundy, a Mormon, as some of the militia members nodded in understanding. "I did it how he told me to do it."
Earlier on Friday the Pacific Patriots Network called on its members to establish a safety perimeter around the refuge in remote southeastern Oregon to prevent a "Waco-style situation" from unfolding.
In 1993 federal agents laid siege to a compound in Waco, Texas, being held by the Branch Davidians religious sect for 51 days before the standoff ended in a gun battle and fire. Four federal agents and more than 80 members of the group died, including 23 children.
The Pacific Patriots Network has previously said that while it agrees with Bundy's land rights grievances, it does not support the occupation, a position leader Brandon Rapolla reiterated during the meeting.
Bundy thanked Rapolla and handed him a small roll of bills, which he said came from donations.
"We're friends, but we're operating separately," Rapolla, a former Marine who helped defend the Bundys in 2014 in their standoff with the U.S. government at their Nevada ranch, told Reuters in an earlier interview.
The militia members are not joining the occupation, but are sleeping in their vehicles or in hotels in Burns, he said.
Rapolla said he had also taken sausage McMuffins to FBI agents who are stationed at nearby Burns Municipal Airport to monitor the occupation and had coffee with deputies from the county sheriff's office on Thursday.
The meetings were friendly, he said, and he told them that they were there to make neither side escalates the dispute.
"That's really the point of militias: it's community involvement," Rapolla said. "If something happens in your community, that's what militias are for."
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, saying: "We will take that offer but not yet and we will go out of this county and out of this state as free men."
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, 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.
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)