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Dakota pipeline protesters 'won't be evicted'

US authorities have said they have no plans to remove protesters near the Dakota Access Pipeline construction project. Thousands of Native American activists are resisting efforts to build the pipeline near tribal lands.

The US Army Corps of Engineers said Sunday it has "no plans for forcible removal" of protesters who have been camping in North Dakota to protest the pipeline. The Corps had notified tribal leaders Friday that all federal lands north of the Cannonball River would be closed to public access December 5 out of "safety concerns." The move sparked fears of a violent confrontation with law enforcement officials as they attempted to evict thousands of activists from the Oceti Sakowin camp erected in April.

Protesters and local law enforcement have regularly clashed over efforts by activists to disrupt final construction of the 1,172-mile (1,885-kilometer) pipeline that would move crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois.

But in a statement the Army Corps' district commander in Omaha, Nebraska clarified that federal agencies aren't planning to forcibly evict protesters.  "I am very concerned for the safety and well-being of all citizens at these encampments on Corps-managed federal land, and we want to make sure people are in a safe place for the winter,” Colonel John Henderson said.  "We fully support the rights of all Americans to exercise free speech and peacefully assemble, and we ask that they do it in a way that does not also endanger themselves or others, or infringe on others' rights.”

The Standing Rock Sioux have challenged the project in federal court, saying the pipeline's more than 200 water crossings, including one less than a mile upstream of the reservation, would imperil drinking water for more than 8,000 tribal members and millions downstream. Activist organizers told a news conference on Saturday at the main protest site where about 5,000 people are camped that they had no intention of moving. There are smaller camps on land not subject to the planned restrictions, including an area south of the Cannonball River where the Corps said it was establishing a so-called "free-speech zone" by authorities.

Tribal activists from across the country and their sympathizers argue the $3.8 billion (3.57 billion euros) Dakota Access Pipeline, owned by Energy Transfer Partners LP, poses a threat to water resources and sacred Native American sites.

The Obama administration postponed final approval of a permit required to allow tunneling beneath the Missouri River in September. That emboldened resistance to the project with frequent clashes between demonstrators and heavily armed local police prompting complaints of excessive force.

Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Dave Archambault told the Associated Press he and the Morton County Sheriff - who enjoys the backing of the state's Republican governor and attorney general - have met several times, though each meeting has been tense and unproductive. "I don't think aggressive force is necessary and he thinks it's necessary," Archambault said.

But don't look for apologies from the North Dakota sheriff. "We are just not going to allow people to become unlawful," Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier told AP.  "It's just not going to happen."

USA North Dakota Protest gegen Ölpipeline (Reuters/S. Keith)

Police use a water cannon on protesters in freezing weather during a protest against plans to pass the Dakota Access pipeline near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, US. November 20, 2016.

Energy Transfer Partners won't give ground

More than 525 people from across the country have been arrested. In the most recent clash between police and protesters, which was near the path of the pipeline and spanned Sunday night into Monday morning, officers used tear gas, rubber bullets and large water hoses in freezing weather. Organizers said at least 17 protesters were taken to the hospital, some for hypothermia and one for a serious arm injury, and one officer was injured.

Energy Transfer Partners CEO Kelcy Warren has said that the pipeline won't be rerouted and the company has no alternative other than to stick to its plan. President-elect Donald Trump holds stock in the company and pipeline opponents worry those investments will sway his presidential administration.

jar/kl (AP, Reuters)

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