In the latest in a series of protests against the North Dakota oil pipeline project, overnight an estimated 400 protesters clashed with police who fired tear gas at the scene of a similar confrontation last month. The protesters mounted the Backwater Bridge and attempted to force their way past police in what the Morton County Sheriff's Department initially described as an "ongoing riot." Protesters say the pipeline threatens water resources and sacred tribal lands.
According to Reuters, one arrest had been made by 8:30 p.m. local time (0230 GMT Monday), about 2 1/2 hours after the incident began 45 miles (30 miles) south of Bismark, the North Dakota capital. About 100 to 200 protesters remained after midnight.
The Backwater Bridge has been closed since late October, when activists clashed with police in riot gear and set two trucks on fire, prompting authorities to forcibly shut down a protesters encampment nearby.
The Morton County Sheriff's Department said officers on the scene of the latest confrontation were "describing protesters' actions as very aggressive."
Demonstrators tried to start about a dozen fires as they attempted to outflank and "attack" law enforcement barricades, the sheriff's statement said. Police said they responded by firing volleys of tear gas at protesters in a bid to prevent them from crossing the bridge.
Activists at the scene reported on Twitter that police were also spraying protesters with water in sub-freezing temperatures and firing rubber bullets, injuring some in the crowd. A total of 167 demonstrators have been injured according to a medic on site, as cited by Indigenous Rising Media. The police were reportedly targeting demonstrators’ heads and legs.
Seven people have been hospitalized for severe head injuries. Three of those injured are reportedly elders of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe.
"There's been no signs of violence on the side of the [water] protectors. We've seen some folks being injured...it really does feel like a warzone, and it doesn't feel like we're in America in 2016," a protester told Indigenous Rising Media, calling the situation "very scary."
Police did not confirm those reports, but later said protesters had hurled rocks, striking one officer, and fired burning logs from slingshots.
The clashes began after protesters removed a truck that had been on the bridge since Oct. 27, police said. The North Dakota Department of Transportation closed the Backwater Bridge due to damage from that incident.
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The $3.7 billion Dakota Access project has been drawing steady opposition from Native American and environmental activists since the summer. Completion of the pipeline, set to run 1,172 miles (1,185 km) from North Dakota to Illinois, was delayed in September so federal authorities could re-examine permits required by the Army Corps of Engineers.
Plans called for the pipeline to pass under Lake Oahe, a federally owned water source, and to skirt the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation by about half a mile. Most of the construction has otherwise been finished.
The Standing Rock tribe and environmental activists say the project would threaten water supplies and sacred Native American sites and ultimately contribute to climate change. Supporters of the pipeline, owned by Energy Transfer Partners, said the project offers the fast and most direct route for bringing Bakken shale oil from North Dakota to U.S. Gulf Coast refineries and would be safer than transporting the oil by road or rail.