Negotiators reached a verbal agreement Saturday that could end the 55-day standoff between the FBI and the Montana freemen, mediator Charles Duke said at the conclusion of three days of negotiations.
Duke said the agreement must be approved at high levels of the FBI, possibly even by U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, and he does not expect a decision overnight.
“We are not there yet, but we’re closer,” the Colorado state senator told the media at an open-air news conference a few miles from the freemen compound.
He estimated the proposal, which he said came from the freemen, has a 50-50 chance of being approved by federal officials.
Duke declined to specify the point on which the tentative agreement finally was reached. “We have reached many items of agreement, but this one is a major issue,” he said.
The breakthrough came in a 45-minute afternoon session under a canopy erected to protect negotiators from a cold, light rain.
Duke said the talks reached a “very low point yesterday (Friday),” before freemen negotiators returned Saturday with what he termed “creative” proposals.
The morning meeting lasted two hours and 15 minutes, followed by the afternoon session of 45 minutes.
Duke said that although he did not expect quick approval from federal officials, results of the verbal agreement might become apparent at a negotiating session this morning - possibly in the form of additional freemen joining the talks.
Duke stressed that nothing has been signed yet, even on an informal basis between negotiators.
Cold rain and a stiff wind swept into Garfield County after the morning talks ended in warm sunshine.
The four freemen leaders, two FBI agents and Duke conducted the 45-minute afternoon session under a canopy, bundled in coats and hats.
Two FBI agents struggled for 30 minutes to raise the poles and lash the blue and white canopy over the card table and folding chairs. The poles were stabilized with sandbags. Papers on the negotiating table flapped and fluttered in the wind.
FBI security appeared doubled, with two carloads of agents standing watch a few hundred yards up the muddy road from where the seven negotiators sat just inside the gate of the 960-acre farm.
After the talks ended late in the morning, negotiators left without speaking to reporters.
The two sides met for 90 minutes on Friday, and Duke was taken alone into the farm compound while the agents waited outside.
After Friday’s session, Duke said that some progress was made in the talks, which involve “probably 30 or 40 major issues,” and they are “horribly complex.”
The freemen group, believed to be heavily armed, says it is not subject to state or federal laws.
The standoff began March 25 when the FBI arrested two members of the group.
The FBI believes 18 freemen, some wanted on federal check-kiting and other charges, remain inside the compound. Former Green Beret Col. James “Bo” Gritz, who negotiated with the freemen earlier, put the number of people on the 960-acre compound at 22.