Hopes rise for end to Montana stand-off

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The Independent Online
Hopes rose yesterday that Easter could be the cue for a motley group of armed rightists and disgruntled farmers to walk peacefully out of their barricaded ranch in remote eastern Montana.

Leaders of the Montana Freemen say their beliefs come straight from "God's mouth", fuelling speculation that they would use the day of Christ's resurrection to surrender. They rely heavily on readings from the Bible to justify their mixture of anti-government protest, white supremacism and financial fakery.

Rumours of a settlement seemed partly inspired by television crews, dispirited by two weeks of sloshing through the melting snow and mud around the tiny town of Jordan. The Freemen appear to hate the media almost as much as the government and have confiscated equipment at gunpoint.

US Attorney Sherry Matteucci said she was "very optimistic that we will be able to resolve this without any serious confrontation". Negotiators were claiming progress in a spate of diplomacy to end the stand-off, with meetings led by local legislators.

Officials, determined from the start to avert a bloody shoot-out with the Freemen, confirmed that the wife and five-year-old daughter of a Freeman leader who left the compound at the weekend would not face criminal charges. And yesterday relatives allowed to visit the ranch were reportedly seen delivering Easter presents.

The siege is the latest in a number of recent confrontations between the government and cultists, survivalists, and far-right groups that came together under the "militia" banner.

But the Freemen have characteristics of their own. The 20 people thought to be inside the Jordan ranch several include well-known local ranchers, and their families, who have failed to pay farm loans.

The Freemen, a loosely structured group said to be active across the American West, reject the authority of the Federal Reserve bank and write fake cheques for large sums. They appear to have drawn hundreds of needy people into financial "training courses" with promises of easy payment of debt and taxes.

Many Montanans blame a small cadre that moved in from Colorado for stirring trouble in their own backyard and giving the state a bad name. Some say the FBI should get tough with the outsiders.

But most people in Jordan can name close relations on the ranch. "They are not all the kooks they are said to be," said Carole Hellier, a local police dispatcher with a sister inside, after a visit. "She has not done anything that can't be repaired, can't be rectified."

The operation began when FBI agents trapped two Freemen leaders and arrested them on charges of multi-million dollar fraud and issuing death- threats against a judge. Several of those in the ranch face similar charges but prosecutors have pledged that any others will be allowed to leave and "get on with their lives".

The FBI is determined to avert a repeat of the killings at Waco, Texas and an earlier siege of white supremacists at Ruby Ridge, Idaho.

On both occasions the bureau was widely condemned for taking an over- aggressive, paramilitary approach that ended tragically.

The Jordan operation is being led by assistant FBI director Robert "Bear" Bryant, who headed the FBI's Salt Lake City, Utah office during a 1988 siege of armed religious polygamists accused of bombing a Mormon church.

During 13 days, gunfire from a log cabin was directed repeatedly at FBI positions but shots were not returned. Although a shoot-out ensued when agents tried to arrest the cult's leader, none of nine children inside was hurt.