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FBI holds fire in Montana siege

The FBI continued its softly-softly stand off with members of a heavily armed militia group on a remote ranch in central Montana yesterday.

More than 100 federal agents and local patrolmen surrounded the Freemen, who moved to the ranch six months ago and proclaimed it the "Justus Township". On Monday they arrested two leaders on charges of fraud and making death threats and hold arrest warrants for eight more people.

The FBI apparently made its move after local residents of the sparsely populated Montana plains circulated a petition calling for a posse to eject the Freemen and hand over the 960-acre property to its legal owner, a rancher who bought it in a foreclosure sale more than a year ago. But, mindful of the Waco tragedy in Texas in1993, and the botched siege at Ruby Ridge, Idaho in 1992, in which FBI snipers shot and killed the wife of white supremacist Randy Weaver, every appearance of an armed siege was kept to a minimum.

The two men arrested, LeRoy Schweitzer and Daniel Peterson, appeared in court on Tuesday charged with making death threats against a local judge and issuing fraudulent cheques. Proceedings were halted as they shouted that they refused to recognise the court.

Last week the group allegedly placed an order for one-and-a- half million dollars worth of arms with a local dealer. "Our guess is that there are a lot of arms [on the ranch]," said Christine Kauffman, of Montana Human Rights Network, which monitors far-right groups in the state. "These people are very enamoured with weapons and combine that with a paranoid outlook and you have a pretty dangerous situation."

The Freemen are described as an extreme anti-tax, anti-government group with ties to the white supremacist Christian Identity church. They use their peculiar reading of the US Constitution to claim that Federal taxes are unlawful and blacks and Jews are second-class citizens.