CANNON BALL, N.D. (AP) — Armed soldiers and law enforcement officers dressed in riot gear and driving trucks, military Humvees and buses moved in Thursday to remove Dakota Access pipeline protesters who have camped on private land to block construction of the oil pipeline.
Sirens blared and officials told protesters over a loudspeaker to move out. Two helicopters and an airplane monitored the operation from the air.
Protesters parked cars on the highway near the camp and slashed the vehicles' tires to try to slow the authorities. They also set a small fire at one of two blockades they set up on the highway.
An Associated Press reporter at the scene said there were no clashes between authorities and protesters as the operation began about midday, but some scuffles broke out between protesters who wanted to stay put and those willing to leave. The majority of the protesters were retreating.
The forcible removal of about 200 protesters began a day after they had refused to leave voluntarily.
Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier said in a statement that the protesters' actions "forced law enforcement to respond."
"I can't stress it enough, this is a public safety issue," he said. "We cannot have protesters blocking county roads, blocking state highways or trespassing on private property."
The months-long dispute over the four-state, $3.8 billion pipeline reached a crisis point when the protesters set up camp on land owned by pipeline developer Energy Transfer Partners. The disputed area is just to the north of a more permanent and larger encampment on federally-owned land where hundreds of protesters have camped for months.
Law enforcement officials demanded that the protesters leave the private land on Wednesday, but they refused. Thick fog and cloudy skies on Wednesday appeared to stall the law enforcement effort, but the sun came out on Thursday with scattered clouds and a light breeze. Officials have frequently monitored protesters by air.
The Federal Aviation Administration is restricting flights over the Cannon Ball area until Nov. 5, allowing only aircraft affiliated with the North Dakota Tactical Operation Center and banning drones.
The activists fear the pipeline could harm cultural sites and drinking water for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. The company and the state of North Dakota say no sensitive cultural sites have been found.
Protests supporting the Standing Rock Sioux have been ongoing for months, with more than 260 people arrested before Thursday's operation.
The pipeline is to carry oil from western North Dakota through South Dakota and Iowa to an existing pipeline in Patoka, Illinois, where shippers can send it on to Midwest and Gulf Coast markets. Energy Transfer Partners has said the pipeline is nearly complete other than the work in south central North Dakota.
The protest has drawn the attention of activists and celebrities, including actress-activist Shailene Woodley and Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein. Civil rights activist Jesse Jackson and actor Mark Ruffalo were at the protest camp Wednesday but departed later in the day.
Nicholson reported from Bismarck, North Dakota.