BURNS, Ore. (Reuters) - The leader of a month-long armed occupation of a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon on Wednesday urged remaining protesters to leave the site and go home, a day after his arrest and the death of a supporter.
Ammon Bundy, who was taken into custody with several members of his group at a traffic stop along Highway 395, north of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeast Oregon, urged federal authorities to let his comrades leave the compound without being prosecuted.
“To those remaining at the refuge, I love you. Let us take this fight from here. Please stand down... Please go home,” Bundy said in a statement read by his attorney, Michael Arnold, following a court hearing.
A total of eight occupiers had left the compound by late on Wednesday and three were arrested, including Jason Patrick, who had been with Bundy’s group in Oregon since the beginning and was acting as a spokesman for the holdouts, the FBI said in a statement.
It was unclear how many people remained inside the refuge.
Brandon Curtiss, a member of the Pacific Patriots Network, which has been acting as an intermediary between law enforcement and Bundy’s supporters, said the FBI informed him of Patrick’s arrest.
The three taken into custody face a federal charge of felony conspiracy to impede federal officers.
Patrick told Reuters by telephone on Wednesday that some protesters were leaving, but rejected the word “surrender.”
“I don’t know what surrendering looks like,” he said. “They’re walking through the checkpoint and going home. That’s what I’ve heard unless I‘m being lied to.”
Citing the investigation, authorities declined to say what led to the fatal shooting of a member of Bundy’s group, identified by activists as Robert LaVoy Finicum, a rancher who acted as a spokesman for the occupiers. Bundy’s brother, Ryan, was wounded during the traffic stop.
The protesters were each charged in U.S. District Court in Portland with conspiracy to use force, intimidation or threats to impede federal officers from discharging their duties.
The defendants were ordered held without bail until a detention hearing set for Friday.
The Malheur takeover, which started on Jan. 2 with at least a dozen armed men, was a flare-up in the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion, a decades-old conflict over federal control of millions of acres in the West.
‘THIS CAN‘T HAPPEN IN AMERICA’
At a news conference earlier in the day, state and federal authorities pleaded with the remaining occupiers to quit their protest, saying they were free to leave.
“Let me be clear: It is the actions and choices of the armed occupiers of the refuge that have led us to where we are today,” said Greg Bretzing, special agent in charge of the FBI’s office in Portland. “They had ample opportunity to leave the refuge peacefully and as the FBI and our partners have clearly demonstrated, actions are not without consequences.”
Federal officials say they had probable cause to arrest Finicum, who told NBC News earlier this month that he would rather die than be detained.
At the same news conference, Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward, his voice breaking, said, ”I‘m disappointed that a traffic stop yesterday that was supposed to bring peaceful resolution to this ended badly. Multiple law enforcement agencies put a lot of work into putting together the best tactical plan they could, to take these guys down peacefully.
“This can’t happen anymore. This can’t happen in America and it can’t happen in Harney County,” Ward added.
Reactions to the takeover from residents in Burns, about 30 miles (48 km) from the refuge, have included sympathy for the imprisoned local ranchers whose plight began the protest, to distrust of the federal government, and dismay at the armed occupation by individuals seen as outsiders.
Many residents said an armed protest was taking legitimate grievances too far, and leaders of a Native American tribe have urged the occupiers to leave, saying they were scaring the community and that the protesters’ ignorance of the region’s real history was offensive.
Additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles, Daniel Wallis in Denver, Dan Cook in Portland, Jonathan Allen, Melissa Fares, Amy Tennery and Ed Tobin in New York and Andy Sullivan and Julia Edwards in Washington Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Bill Trott and Clarence Fernandez