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Montana Freemen close to deal

The American flag, flown defiantly upside down for 81 days, was symbolically lowered yesterday at the Freemen ranch in eastern Montana, amid rising hopes of an imminent surrender. But five minutes later, to the consternation of reporters squinting through binoculars, another unidentified flag was hoisted up.

What FBI agents had confidently predicted would be the last day of the longest siege in US law enforcement history began with a morning of confusion. Media crews, kept more than two miles away, struggled to interpret the movements of people and cars shuttling between the ranch and FBI checkpoints.

For the first time, it was reported, two FBI vehicles were allowed to enter the compound. "The agreement is moving forward," an FBI source said, after the Freemen had reportedly agreed to give up.

But the eccentric nature of the stand-off from start to finish, and a series of earlier aborted deals, left no one certain that the 16 people left inside would finally walk out.

On 25 March the FBI arrested two leaders of the Freemen in a sting operation. For nearly three months the bureau has been playing cat and mouse with those left inside, determined to avoid a shooting match with people who, though heavily armed, were only accused of white-collar crimes. The Freemen say the US Government is unconstitutional; they concoct courts and banks of their own. But their bizarre beliefs crossed the line to criminal activity after followers used millions of dollars worth of fake cheques to pay off debts and tax bills and a local judge was threatened with death.

The key to yesterday's planned surrender was a deal for the Freemen to hand over alleged evidence of government misdoings to a third party for safekeeping. Members of the Cause Foundation, a legal group with close associations with far right activists, were acting as intermediaries.