Activist LaVoy Finicum speaks during a press conference at the Malheur National Wildlife Reserve on January 16 in Burns, Ore. Ammon Bundy and about 20 other protesters took over the refuge on Jan. 2, and negotiations with the FBI began Thursday. Photo by Jim Bryant/UPI | License Photo
BURNS , Ore., Jan. 22 (UPI) -- The FBI has begun negotiations with Ammon Bundy, leader of a protest group occupying a federal wildlife refuge near Burns, Ore. since Jan. 2.
Bundy borrowed a cellphone from an FBI agent as he stood at a police blockade in the cold Thursday afternoon for a one-hour conversation between himself and an FBI negotiator. It was the formal opening of talks meant to end the siege of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, occupied by Bundy's group of about 20 people protesting prison sentences given to two ranchers, a father and son, convicted of burning public land.
A lawyer for Dwight and Steven Hammond, the jailed ranchers, said Bundy's group does not speak for his clients.
The negotiator, identified only as "Chris," heard Bundy's anti-government complaints before agreeing to talk again by phone Friday. Bundy stood outside the local airport, the FBI's base of operations, as they spoke. He brought a bodyguard with him, and FBI agents were nearby.
The conversation could be heard on speakerphone, allowing a broadcast of sorts. Bundy expressed interest in having the refuge turned over to local rather than federal authorities and added his group would not leave until buildings on the site were never again used by the federal government. Bundy added he had no intentions of escalating the standoff through violence and asked about the FBI's authority.
"The sheriff has asked for our assistance," the FBI negotiator said.
The negotiations came the day after Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said "federal authorities must move quickly to end the occupation and hold all the wrongdoers responsible."
Earlier in the week a community meeting in Burns indicated that while some local residents were sympathetic to the militia group's cause, patience with the occupation was wearing thin.