JORDAN, Mont. (AP) _ A Freemen leader who was flown by the FBI to meet a jailed comrade carried a deal back to the anti-government group, and a source said a surrender could come as early as Thursday.

Edwin Clark returned to the ranch late Tuesday and most of the Freemen could be seen entering a barn, presumably to discuss the surrender proposal.

``They've pretty much agreed it won't be a gun battle,'' the source said. ``I'm extremely hopeful at this point. It's an extremely positive sign.''

The source, who is familiar with the FBI strategy and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, said progress was made toward a deal that could lead to surrender of the 17 remaining Freemen by Thursday.

He would not elaborate, but said, ``The mere fact that the FBI allowed this to happen is a very positive step.''

Things were quiet at the ranch this morning.

Attorney General Janet Reno, accompanying President Clinton on a trip to a burnt-out church in South Carolina, today told reporters, ``We're doing everything we can to make sure it is resolved peacefully, while preserving all of our options.''

The FBI said it arranged safe passage for Clark to meet with LeRoy Schweitzer in his Billings jail cell on Tuesday, ``In another effort to reach a peaceful resolution.''

The arrest of Schweitzer and another Freemen leader on federal charges of fraud and other crimes sparked the 80-day-old standoff.

``Edwin had to become at peace with LeRoy about it,'' before agreeing to the surrender plans, the source said. ``He didn't want to go forward without checking with LeRoy first.''

A senior federal official in Washington also said Clark was carrying a proposal, which Schweitzer reviewed. But that official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, cautioned that the agreement still could fall through.

``It's possible what's happening today could end up in an agreement or could end up in nothing,'' the official said.

Clark, one of the original owners of the now-foreclosed land the Freemen occupy, has emerged in recent days as the apparent leader of those remaining in the remote 960-acre farm complex on the eastern Montana plains.

Accompanying Clark on the FBI plane to Billings were three negotiators from the CAUSE Foundation, third-party mediators the FBI brought in. The group has represented a former Ku Klux Klan leader as well as survivors of the deadly 1993 Branch Davidian siege near Waco, Texas.

Previously, Clark had been allowed to go to an FBI checkpoint just outside the ranch for negotiations and then return to the compound. His 400-mile trip to Billings was the first time he has gone beyond the FBI perimeter. And he is the only Freeman known to have done so who was not surrendering.

``If Edwin had been the leader when I was there, this would be over already,'' said Colorado state Sen. Charles Duke, a leader of the so-called Patriot movement in his state who broke off negotiations with the Freemen last month. ``We tried to make him the leader. He was the owner of that land. If he goes out, everybody goes.''

Clark is wanted on several charges: impersonating public officials by helping to issue bogus arrest warrants and subpoenas on behalf of Freemen-invented courts, and criminal syndicalism for knowingly belonging to a group that advocates crime, violence or terrorism to further political goals.

The Freemen who remain include four women and one 16-year-old girl. Federal charges against the Freemen include allegations they circulated millions of dollars in worthless checks, and threatened to kill a federal judge.

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Associated Press Writer Michael J. Sniffen in Washington contributed to this report.