The FBI said Wednesday it had moved in to closely surround the four armed occupiers who remain at a remote wildlife refuge in eastern Oregon, pushing the 40-day occupation to what appeared to be a tense final stage that was being broadcast live on the Internet by supporters of the holdouts.
“They’re 50 feet from me,” Sean Anderson said from inside the refuge, growing increasingly agitated after federal law enforcement authorities tightened their circle around the occupation.
“We’re speeding,” Nevada Assemblywoman Michele Fiore replied by phone as she and others sped toward the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in an attempt to avert a confrontation. “’We need you to stay alive.”
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The occupants of the refuge signaled later that they would probably surrender to the FBI in the morning.
“I just hope they’ll keep their word, we’ll keep our word, and we’ll clear this up in the morning,” Anderson said. “It’s going against everything we believe in, but we’ll do it.”
Fiore, a Republican lawmaker who has expressed sympathy for the occupiers, had urged the holdouts to avoid a violent showdown and remain able to advocate for their cause, “so we can take back our land.”
The FBI said in a statement Wednesday night that it had “moved to contain the remaining occupiers by placing agents at barricades both immediately ahead of and behind the area where the occupiers are camping.”
“Negotiations between the occupiers and the FBI continue,” the agency said. ”No shots have been fired.”
The FBI said it took the latest action after one of the occupiers rode an all-terrain vehicle beyond a boundary the occupiers established after they took control of the wildlife refuge on Jan. 2.
The men and women at the refuge said they were protesting the prison sentences of two local ranchers found guilty of setting fires that spread to federal land, but their complaints expanded into a broad indictment of federal restrictions on cattle grazing, logging, mining and other land uses.
The four holdouts are among 16 people who have been indicted on federal conspiracy charges related to the occupation, including Ammon Bundy, the principal leader of the takeover.
Bundy and several other occupation leaders were arrested on Jan. 26 when they emerged from the refuge. Another leader, Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, was killed by Oregon State Police during the law enforcement operation.
The four holdouts have been the sole remaining people at the refuge for nearly two weeks, and they have been surrounded by law enforcement, who until Wednesday had established a broader perimeter.
Federal agents said they moved closer Wednesday after authorities “attempted to approach the driver” of the ATV “and he returned to the encampment at the refuge at a high rate of speed.”
“It has never been the FBI’s desire to engage these armed occupiers in any way other than through dialogue, and to that end, the FBI has negotiated with patience and restraint in an effort to resolve the situation peacefully,” said Greg Bretzing, special agent in charge of the FBI in Oregon.
“However, we reached a point where it became necessary to take action in a way that best ensured the safety of those on the refuge, the law enforcement officers who are on scene, and the people of Harney County who live and work in this area,” he said.
The four remaining occupiers are believed to be Anderson, 48, and his wife, Sandy, 47, both of Riggins, Idaho; David Fry, 27, of Blanchester, Ohio; and Jeff Banta, 46, of Elko, Nev.
Like many other developments, the events Wednesday played out live to tens of thousands of listeners online, in digital counterpoint to the remoteness of the refuge.
The occupiers spoke in a conference call being broadcast on the YouTube channel of Gavin Seim, a self-described “liberty” activist who interrupted the conversation often to lead group prayers and read passages from the Bible.
The holdouts earlier said they would not leave the refuge unless charges were dropped. On Wednesday, both sides appeared to be talking with the agency even as they were talking with each other.
The Andersons said they had been negotiating with an agent named Mark, and they repeatedly expressed fear that agents were about to move in and kill them. They also said they wanted to meet Thursday with Franklin Graham, the son of the Rev. Billy Graham Jr.
“We’re not going to shoot first,” Sean Anderson said earlier. “We’re only going to defend ourselves. But they’re going to push the envelope because that’s what they do.”
Fiore assured them that the agents would not hurt them.
“They said they will not make any moves to escalate anything tonight,” she said.
Fiore said the live broadcast was essential to ensuring that the FBI did not take violent action against the occupiers.
“I want this archived for America,” she said.
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