WASHINGTON • Dozens of anti- government militiamen have extended their occupation of an Oregon wildlife refuge to a second day, warning that their protest against the jailing of two ranchers could last for months.
The group had occupied the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Reserve in north-eastern Oregon on Saturday after a peaceful rally in support of Dwight Hammond, 73, and his son Steven, 46 - ranchers who were jailed over fires on federal land.
The local sheriff's department said the building at the federal wildlife site was empty at the time it was seized. "These men came to Harney County claiming to be part of militia groups supporting local ranchers when, in reality, these men had alternative motives to attempt to overthrow the county and federal government in hopes of sparking a movement across the United States," said a statement from Mr David Ward, sheriff of Harney County.
The militia members - an apparently loose-knit grouping of anti- government farmers, ranchers and survivalists - said they planned no violence but would not rule it out.
One of the protesters is Mr Ammon Bundy, the 40-year-old son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who was at the centre of an armed, anti-government stand-off with the authorities last year over grazing rights on public lands.
The younger Bundy, who spoke by phone to CNN on Sunday, called on the government to restore the "people's constitutional rights".
He said: "We have no intentions of using force upon anyone, (but) if force is used against us, we would defend ourselves."
The Hammonds were convicted of arson after lighting what they said was a controlled fire on their property that spread to government land. But witnesses at their trial said that Steven Hammond had illegally slaughtered deer on federal property, then handed out matches in order to "light up the whole country on fire", according to a Justice Department statement.
The fire consumed 56ha of public land and destroyed any evidence of illegal hunting.