BURNS, United States — Armed anti-government protesters occupying a US wildlife refuge for the past three weeks are refusing to leave even after one of their group was killed as police tried to arrest him, officials said on Wednesday.
Eight protesters including the protest leader Ammon Bundy were taken into custody in a dramatic twist to the standoff in Oregon involving ranchers and farmers angry over federal land management policies.
Local authorities and the FBI called on those still holed up at the refuge to give up and go home.
"It's time for everybody in this illegal occupation to move on. There doesn't have to be bloodshed in our community," Harney County sheriff David Ward told reporters.
Authorities have now blocked the access road leading into the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. But the occupiers are free to leave, although they will be identified as they do so, and authorities want to end the ordeal peacefully, said Greg Bretzing, head of the FBI's Portland office.
"We will continue to look for safe, peaceful procedures on how to bring this to a peaceful conclusion," he added.
Authorities gave few details on the arrests, one of which took place in Arizona, and the fatal shooting incident.
Ward said some of the protesters went to his office on Tuesday and "had ultimatums that I couldn't meet." He did not elaborate.
The FBI said it and local authorities later devised a plan to arrest members of the group as they drove on a highway -- far from any innocent bystanders.
They were reportedly headed to a meeting with local people.
But police stopped them on the way. One man died of a gunshot wound as police tried to arrest him, Bretzing said. Five others were arrested at the scene.
Ammon Bundy, leader of the armed anti-government militia at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters near Burns, Oregon. AFP Photo
"I'm disappointed that a traffic stop yesterday that was supposed to bring peaceful resolution to this ended badly," Ward said.
He added: "It didn't have to happen. We all make choices in life. Sometimes our choices go bad."
Bretzing did not say how many occupiers remained at the refuge.
Ammon Bundy, the rancher who led the initial January 2 occupation in the northwestern state, was among the five arrested on the highway, the FBI said on Tuesday night in a statement.
Bundy, 40, and the others face a federal felony charge "of conspiracy to impede officers of the United States from discharging their official duties through the use of force, intimidation, or threats," the FBI said.
After the highway incident, the FBI and Oregon state police arrested two other men in Burns, the town nearest to the refuge.
An eighth person surrendered to police in Arizona on the same charge, police said.
Bretzing would not identify the dead person. But The Oregonian newspaper said it was group spokesman Robert "LaVoy" Finicum.
The FBI said another person suffered non-life threatening injuries and was rushed to a hospital before being placed under arrest.
The Oregonian reported that two men -- including Bundy's 43-year-old brother Ryan -- had disobeyed orders when agents stopped the two cars they were travelling in, and resisted arrest, resulting in shots being fired.
The Bundy brothers are the sons of Cliven Bundy, 69, a vitriolic anti-government activist who in 2014 engaged in an armed standoff with federal authorities over unpaid cattle grazing fees at his Nevada ranch.
Cliven Bundy confirmed Finicum's death on his Facebook page, saying that he "was Shot and murdered in Cold blood today in Burns Oregon" (sic) by the FBI and state police.
The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is some 48 kilometres away from Burns, which has a population of 3,000.
Last week, some 30 people, including women and children, were at the site, but it was unclear how many were present on Wednesday.
The gunmen originally took over the reserve in protest at the jailing of two local ranchers, Dwight Hammond and his son Steven, who were convicted of arson.
Their demands soon grew to include calls for the government to turn over area federal land to local ranchers. In Oregon, nearly 53 per cent of the land is federally owned.
The Hammonds distanced themselves from the movement and voluntarily began their scheduled prison sentences after the occupation began.
Several members of the local community, notably the Oregon Cattlemen's Association, had condemned the takeover of the reserve, while expressing sympathy for the Hammonds. — AFP