Armed protesters who occupied Oregon refuge acquitted

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Los Angeles (AFP)

A group of armed protesters who led a takeover of a remote wildlife refuge in Oregon earlier this year have been acquitted by a federal jury of felony charges.

The seven anti-government militants, including brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy, were charged with conspiring to impede federal employees at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge through intimidation or force.

The six men and one woman each faced up to six years in prison on the conspiracy charge. Several also faced gun charges in the high-profile trial that last five weeks.

Defense attorney Lisa Ludwig described the verdict as "stunning" as supporters of the group erupted in cheers, local news media reported.

The 41-day siege that began January 2 at the remote reserve put the spotlight on a long-running dispute over millions of acres of public land in the US West.

It was led by the Bundy brothers, whose father Cliven Bundy had been involved in a similar confrontation in 2014 with federal officials over cattle grazing on public land in Nevada.

The takeover in Oregon ended with the dramatic surrender of four holdouts, including one who threatened to commit suicide in a phone call with mediators that was streamed live.

The group's spokesman, LaVoy Finicum, had earlier been shot and killed by police during a traffic stop as he, the Bundys and several others were headed to a community meeting to plead their cause.

For decades, land rights has been a thorny issue in western US states, where the federal government owns most of the land.

Many conservative politicians and ranchers like the Bundys argue that the land has been mismanaged and should be handed over to states or turned into private property.