Softly softly as FBI lays siege to far-right sect

Montana stand-off: Government desperate to avoid repeat of Waco debacle as white extremists hold out into second week

RUPERT CORNWELL

Washington

The FBI's new low-key, restrained policy in the seven-day-old Freemen stand-off in eastern Montana yielded its first results this weekend, as a leader of the far-right anti- Government sect handed himself over voluntarily to police. Mediation offers meanwhile have started to pour in, reputedly including one from Randy Weaver, the white supremacist who was himself victim of a botched federal siege in 1992.

Richard Clark, wanted along with many of the other heavily armed Freemen holed up at the snow-covered ranch outside the small town of Jordan on charges of financial fraud and extortion, surrendered at Grassrange, a settlement some 90 miles west of where the siege is being conducted by an estimated 100 FBI agents - all stationed out of view of the farm buildings.

Details of those inside are sketchy, but police reckon some 20 people are at the ranch, including at least two children, girls aged eight and 10. Several are members of local families like the Clarks, split asunder by the cult that has grown up in their midst. Last autumn Dean Clark, Richard's son, found himself confronted by his father and his grandfather carrying shotguns when he went to collect wheat and barley from land he had rented on the ranch. Should he ever return, they warned, they would kill him.

If the vast, craggy state of Montana - as large as Germany but with only 800,000 people - is a natural home of anti-Government separatists, extremists, and cranks of every hue, the Freemen are among the most impassioned specimens on offer, dedicated to God and guns and bent on setting up a white Christian nation, subject to no authority other than their own.

However, their alleged crimes have been more prosaic, essentially frauds totalling $1.8m (pounds 1.2m), and the non-violent nature of these offences is one reason why the authorities seem determined to wait matters out.

Even more important however, the FBI is desperate to avoid a bloody debacle along the lines of Waco, where 83 members of a religious cult died after federal agents stormed their headquarters in April 1993; or of Ruby Ridge eight months earlier, when federal agents shot dead Mr Weaver's son and wife in their attempt to force him out of his cabin in northern Idaho.

Even so, to accept mediation could be risky. Officials here acknowledge that the mere presence of Mr Weaver could encourage members of other militias to descend on Jordan, increasing the danger of confrontation. It might also attract a still larger contingent from the national press, whose presence would only intensify pressure for overhasty action.

Whatever else, the Freemen siege has already provided one of the more bizarre US media events of 1996. The action, such as it is, is taking place in one of the remotest areas of the country. The ranch itself is 3O miles from Jordan, whose two modest motels have long since been occupied by FBI agents.

For the region, the press invasion has been an undreamt-of late winter economic windfall. For the media, though, veritable hardship conditions are the order of the hour. Ordinary phones and fax machines are few and far between, while most cellular phone networks do not include so thinly inhabited a region.

The scores of reporters and the network film crews covering the stand- off have been forced to rent local rooms at exorbitant rates, ship in mobile homes, or commute daily from Miles City, 83 miles away to the southeast (though Montana's recent decision to scrap the former 65 mph speed limit has reduced driving time to little more than an hour). If the FBI maintains its current policy, they may face a long stay. As well as thousands of rounds of ammunition, the besieged Freemen are said to have stockpiled food enough to last for months.

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