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Dakota pipeline tensions rise as protester charged with attempted murder

As a demonstrator at the construction site of a oil pipeline in North Dakota is charged with attempted murder, eyes shift to wider issues of corporate influence in an increasingly belligerent and iconic struggle.

The 1,172-mile (1,885-km) $3.8 billion (3.46 billion euros) pipeline - being built by a group of companies led by the pipeline's operator, Energy Transfer Partners - would offer the most direct route for shale oil from North Dakota to US Gulf Coast refineries, carrying sweet crude oil fracked from North Dakota's Bakken oil patch through South Dakota and Iowa into Illinois.

Energy Transfer Partners insists the project is safe, while local Indian tribes and ecological groups are fighting the pipeline's permitting process in federal court and in protests on the ground.

Shades of retribution?

The arrested demonstrator, 37-year old Red Fawn Fallis, was confronted by two officers on the evening of October 27 while taking part in a demonstration, according to a police affidavit.

During an ensuing struggle Fallis then allegedly fired at a police officer three times with a handgun, failing to hit him, according to an account from Captain Bryan Niewind of the Morton County Sheriff's Department. Later a small amount of marijuana was found in her possession, according to court documents. If found guilty she faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.

Over the weekend, construction crews were working next to the camp that authorities cleared Thursday, when they arrested more than 140 people at the sprawling encampment known as Oceti Sakowin, or Seven Council Fires camp, which is located on Army Corps of Engineers land.

Activist and actor Susan Sarandon speaking at the site last week

Activist and actor Susan Sarandon speaking at the site last week

Protests

The project has faced months of protest from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, as well as environmental activists, who say it threatens local water supplies and sacred tribal sites. Police have clashed with protesters on several occasions when they moved in to clear out a camp constructed by demonstrators on private land.

Protesters said that those arrested in the confrontation had numbers written on their arms and were housed in what appeared to be dog kennels, without bedding or furniture.

In response, some demonstrators torched three vehicles on a bridge, creating a blockade that effectively cut off easy access to the pipeline construction zone and made it far harder for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and nearby residents to get to Bismarck for errands and medical appointments.

Others are less prepared to use force. "We don't want people instigating things that are going to get out of hand. We don't need them," said Don Cuny, chief of security for the large camp near the confluence of the Missouri and Cannonball rivers. "They want the kids out of here if things get ugly," said Emmett White Temple, a 55-year-old member of the Standing Rock Sioux.

Crowdsourcing to help the protesters has brought in $1 million (910,000 euros). One online legal defense fund has raised more than $655,000 for "the legal defense of warriors protecting land, water and human rights."

Meanwhile, thousands of supporters of the tribe and environmental activists turned to social media on Monday aiming to confuse the police, who many believe are using it to track the protesters. Some 4,600 people used Facebook's location tagging feature to "check in" on Monday afternoon at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, near the site of the pipeline, vastly boosting the numbers actually there.

Bigger picture

The pipeline's future will set a precedent for the other such ventures. The case is also seen to expose divisions within US society over the role and influence of corporate giants such as Energy Transfer Partners, in which Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump holds shares. His rival, Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, has been a very strong supporter of fracking.

Mainstream media has been slow to report the story and when it does has tended to focus on the violent confrontations at the expense of a wider narrative of competing land and environmental policy, the journalist, Amy Goodman, host of the "Democracy Now!" news broadcaster has argued. Goodman had an arrest warrant issued for her in September after her coverage of the situation, before a judge dismissed the charges, Goodman said at the time: "Not enough people realize what's going on out there. It's a bigger story than the amount of attention it's received."

Watch video 01:08

North Dakota: Severe riots during pipeline protest

jbh/kl (Reuters, AP)

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