US militiamen dig in for fourth day at Oregon reserve

Burns (United States) (AFP) - A band of anti-government militiamen occupying a federal wildlife reserve in rural Oregon dug in for a fourth day Tuesday, despite the ranchers they claimed to be defending denouncing their actions and turning themselves in to the law.

The loose-knit band of farmers, ranchers and survivalists began the siege in protest at the jailing of Dwight Hammond, 73, and his son Steven, 46, convicted of arson for setting fire to federal land.

They have insisted their action is peaceful, but are armed and warned they will defend themselves if the authorities use force to dislodge them.

"I'm not here to die. I'm here to defend my freedoms and my liberties," their leader Ammon Bundy told Fox News.

Up to a hundred protesters -- styling themselves "citizens for constitutional freedom" -- are believed to be holed up at the snowy visitor's center for the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, which they took over to protest the Hammonds' imprisonment.

So far, the FBI and local police have held off intervening to try remove them, in the hope of resolving the standoff peacefully.

The rancher father and son whose case triggered the protest have firmly distanced themselves from the occupation of the reserve.

On Monday, they turned themselves in to begin serving their sentences at a federal prison in California, while complaining their five-year terms were "far too long" and announcing they would seek rare clemency from President Barack Obama.

It was unclear whether their surrender to authorities would end the siege in neighbouring Oregon.

Police demanded that the remaining protestors vacate the reserve.

"The Hammonds have turned themselves in. It is time for you to leave our community," Harney County Sheriff David Ward told reporters.

"Go home, be with your own families and end this peacefully," he said, denouncing the fact that "a peaceful protest" had become "armed and unlawful."

The protest is led by 40-year-old Bundy, son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who was at the center of a previous armed standoff with government authorities in 2014, that time over grazing rights on public lands.

Bundy told reporters he was fighting for freedom for the Hammonds, claiming they were being harassed for refusing to sell their Oregon ranch to the government.

- 'Spark a movement' -

Beyond the Hammonds' case, Bundy and his brother Ryan are demanding the federal government relinquish control of the Malheur reserve.

Sheriff Ward said the protesters' ultimate goal was "to overthrow the county and federal government in hopes to spark a movement across the United States."

The Hammonds have set themselves apart from the armed movement, and from Bundy in particular.

The father and son have both already served several months in jail for arson, but a judge in October ordered them back to prison to serve the remainder of their sentences after they lost an appeal.

The Hammonds were convicted after starting what they said was a controlled fire on their ranch in Harney County. The fire spread and consumed 139 acres (56 hectares) of federal land.

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.

- #Oregonstandoff -

So far, there has been no visible police presence at the reserve, where several armed men in vehicles are guarding the entrance while others kept watch from a lookout tower.

Schools in the area have been closed for the week.

Online, public opinion was sharply split on what was quickly dubbed the #Oregonstandoff, with many branding the takeover an act of domestic terrorism, while others saw an act of resistance against government oppression.

A Gallup poll released last month showed a majority of Americans view "big government" as the biggest threat to the nation in the future, when asked to choose between that, big labor and big business.

The theme has been embraced by the Republican party's contenders for the 2016 presidential nomination, who so far have been relatively silent on the siege -- with the notable exception of Ted Cruz, who urged the protesters to stand down peaceably.

"Every one of us has a constitutional right to protest, to speak our minds," Cruz told reporters in Iowa.

"But we don't have a constitutional right to use force and violence and to threaten force and violence against others."