MORTON COUNTY, N.D. – The tension between protesters and law enforcement over disputed territory near the Dakota Access pipeline has escalated in North Dakota. Authorities started driving away and arresting protesters Thursday, according to officials.

In a CNN report, police in riot gear were brought in to forcibly remove protesters from what they say is private property. Reinforcements from seven other states were also called in to help according to Cecily Fong, North Dakota Department of Emergency Services spokeswoman.

Huffington Post reported that many of the protesters did not yield to initial orders to leave. While some were praying in circles, others yelled at members of law enforcement as they approached. The conflict escalated as protesters set fire to a bridge and to tires left on the highway, according to Morton County Sheriff’s Department. Others defiantly parked cars on the highway near the camp to block authorities from reaching them.

Hundreds of Standing Rock Sioux tribal members and their allies have camped on nearby federal land for months. Members of the tribe say the land they’re occupying is rightfully theirs.

According to NBC news report, authorities used pepper spray and launched bean bags at activists. By using trucks, military Humvees, and buses, armed soldiers and police in riot gear tried to remove the demonstrators. Two helicopters and an airplane scanned the operation.

About 250 protesters joined together at the camp and another 80 demonstrators with a dozen horses were at the site of a county road, according to a statement from the Morton County Sheriff’s Department.

Protesters on horseback hurtled toward the law enforcement line and some threw rocks and debris at the officers causing injuries, Fong said.

The Sheriff’s department said they repeatedly told the demonstrators they were “free to go,” asking them to move to a separate camp further south. The majority of the protesters were retreating but had not fully left the area of private land. About 200 protesters remained in the area, listening to tribal elders speak.

“Protesters escalated unlawful behavior this weekend by setting up illegal roadblocks, trespassing onto private property and establishing an encampment (actions that) forced law enforcement to respond at this time,” Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier said.

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“I can’t stress it enough, this is a public safety issue,” the sheriff said. “We cannot have protesters blocking county roads, blocking state highways, or trespassing on private property.”

Mekasi Horinek, protest camp coordinator said on Wednesday that the protesters had no plans of leaving their encampment. “We don’t have any plans on retreating. If they’re going to come in here and they’re going to arrest one of us, they’re going to arrest every one of us,” Horinek said. “We’re going to stand in unity, we’re going to stand in prayer, we’re going to stand in peace.”

Standing Rock Sioux Tribe chairman Dave Archambault II said the tribe had asked the U.S. Department of Justice to intervene in the escalating situation with law enforcement. The tribe accused local and state authorities of civil rights violations. They called on U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch on Tuesday to investigate law enforcement tactics against activists as protests and violence build up.

“The DOJ should be enlisted and expected to investigate the overwhelming reports and videos demonstrating clear strong-arm tactics, abuses and unlawful arrests by law enforcement,” Archambault II said. Nevertheless, he called for caution amid the standoff. “Remain peaceful and prayerful and don’t react to law enforcement aggression.”

The months-long conflict stemmed out from protesters’ claims that the ongoing construction of the 1,172-mile pipeline, a project worth $3.7 billion, threatens the environment and destroys Native American burial sites, prayer sites and culturally significant artifacts.

Opponents also cite environmental concerns, including possible contamination due to leaks and eventual greenhouse gas emissions. They also argue that the pipeline project won approval without a proper environmental study.

Archambault II said he doesn’t support moving more crude oil from North Dakota and said that Americans should look for alternative and renewable sources of energy.

Opponents also say they’re worried about the potential problem if the pipeline, which would go under the Missouri River, broke and contaminated the water supply.

The supporters, on the other hand, say the results could be an economic boon that makes the country more self-sufficient and would also significantly decrease U.S. reliance on foreign oil. The developer, Energy Transfer Partners said the pipeline would also help free up railways to transport “crops and other commodities currently constrained by crude oil cargos.”

The developer said the pipeline would provide a safer, more environmentally friendly way of moving crude oil compared to other modes of transportation, such as rail or trucks.

Energy Transfer Partners projects the pipeline would bring an estimated $156 million in sales and income taxes to state and local governments. It’ll also add 8,000 to 12,000 construction jobs, the developer said.

But Archambault II said his tribe will settle for nothing less than the stop of the pipeline’s construction but they’re not opposed to energy independence or to economic development. “The problem we have—and this is a long history of problems that evolved over time—is where the federal government or corporations take advantage of indigenous lands and indigenous rights,” he told CNN.

Energy Transfer Partners claim it has tried to direct the pipeline away from residential areas and has tried to reach voluntary deals with property owners “at a fair price.”

But Archambault II said he thinks the Native Americans are getting short-changed once again. “What we’re opposed to is paying for all the benefits that this country receives,” he said. Whenever there’s a benefit, whether it’s energy independence … whether it’s economic development, tribes pay the cost. And what we see now are tribes from all over sharing the same concern that we have, saying, ‘It’s enough now. Stop doing this to indigenous people. Stop doing this to our indigenous lands.'”

Photo source: Morton County Sheriff’s Department Facebook page