WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Federal authorities in a stand-off with armed, self-styled militiamen in eastern Oregon have been told to avoid a violent confrontation, in line with official U.S. policy after deadly clashes in the 1990s, said three Obama administration officials.
The occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, which began on Saturday, is the latest showdown between federal law enforcement officers and gun-toting militants protesting laws they oppose, from taxes and weapons to land-use fees.
Clashes in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992 and Waco, Texas, in 1993 turned violent and dozens of people were killed. Since then, the FBI and other agencies have adopted more patient, flexible tactics, stressing negotiation over confrontation.
The FBI said in a statement issued on Sunday it is taking the lead in working to bring a peaceful solution to the situation at the Oregon refuge but declined to release specific information due to safety considerations.
The Oregon occupation differs from previous standoffs because the militants have occupied a public building, a tactic more commonly used by left-wing extremists, said Mark Pitcavage, who monitors extremist groups for the Anti-Defamation League.
A 2009 report on right-wing extremism by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security cited the recession and President Barack Obama’s election as possible drivers of extremist activity by white supremacist and militia movements.
The DHS employee who wrote that report, Daryl Johnson, applauded what he called federal authorities’ “wait them out” strategy in Oregon but said that the longer such standoffs continue, the greater the chance of violence.
“The longer this goes on, the greater the risk becomes because you have more and more people who come,” said Johnson, who is now a law enforcement consultant.
The occupation’s leaders have issued recruiting calls on social media for more supporters, though it is unclear how many have joined so far.
The Malheur occupation began as a march in Burns, Oregon about 30 miles (48 km) north of the wildlife refuge to protest Monday’s scheduled imprisonment of two ranchers convicted in 2012 of setting fires that inadvertently spread to public land.
Two administration officials cited the peaceful resolution of a 2014 confrontation with members of the Bundy family as a successful precedent for a non-confrontational approach.
Ammon Bundy, a leader of the Malheur occupiers, said his group was trying to restore individual rights.
Bundy is the son of Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher whose family staged a 2014 armed protest against federal officials who sought to seize Bundy’s cattle over what they said were more than $1 million in unpaid grazing fees. Federal agents ultimately backed down and did not collect the fees.
Additional reporting by Julia Edwards; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Cynthia Osterman