BURNS, Ore., Jan 7 (Reuters) - The leader of a group of armed protesters occupying the headquarters of a U.S. wildlife refuge in rural southeastern Oregon on Thursday rejected a sheriff's offer of passage out of the state to end the standoff.
During a meeting at a neutral site, Harney County Sheriff David Ward offered to escort Ammon Bundy and his group of occupiers out of Oregon, but Bundy declined.
Bundy met the sheriff on a roadside after leaving the compound with other occupiers in two vehicles.
Following the brief meeting, Bundy told reporters that he would consider Ward's position, but the sheriff had not addressed their grievances. "We always consider what people say," Bundy said.
The takeover that began on Saturday at the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, about 30 miles (48 km) south of the small town of Burns, is the latest incident in the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion, a decades-old conflict over federal control of land and resources in the U.S. West.
The move followed a demonstration in support of two local ranchers, Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son Steven, who were returned to prison earlier this week for setting fires that spread to federal land.
A lawyer for Hammond family has said that the occupiers do not speak for the family.
Residents of the area in a series of public meetings over the past few days have expressed a mixture of sympathy for the Hammond family, suspicion of the federal government's motives and frustration with the occupation.
The leaders of the occupiers are Ammon and his brother, Ryan Bundy. Their father, Cliven Bundy, along with a band of armed men, stared down federal agents trying to seize his livestock in Nevada in 2014. Many of the other occupiers also are from outside Oregon.
At least a dozen other armed men have been visible at the park headquarters, offices, a museum and outbuildings. They have come and gone freely from the park without interference from authorities, at times making trips into town.
The Bundys' group said that on Wednesday night a group of three men entered the refuge unexpectedly and engaged in a brief confrontation with the occupiers. Reuters journalists present at the time saw men running with firearms and heard angry shouting, but no shots were fired.
The situation was more calm on Thursday when a series of area ranchers visited for chats with the Bundys, who discussed their beliefs that the federal government had overreached its authority, often pausing to read from the U.S. Constitution.
"Hopefully some of the ranching families and the community will come and support you guys," rancher Royce Wilber told them. "That's what I wanted to post on Facebook, 'Quit bitching on your electronic devices and come down here and see these people because they are not how they are portrayed in the media.'"
The Bundys say they want the federal government to turn over its land holdings in the area to local authorities and that they will leave after they have accomplished their goal.
Federal law enforcement agents and local police have so far kept away from the occupied site, maintaining little visible presence outside the park in a bid to avoid the deadly violence that erupted during conflicts with militants in Idaho and Texas in the 1990s.
But local officials have repeatedly asked the occupiers to go home, saying that even residents who support their views object to the illegal seizure of federal property.
"In reality these men had alternative motives, to attempt to overthrow the county and federal government in hopes to spark a movement across the United States," Harney County Sheriff David Ward said in a statement earlier this week. (Writing by Scott Malone and Dan Whitcomb; editing by Cynthia Osterman)
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