U.S. veterans, tribe elders join forces in pipeline protest

CANNON BALL, N.D. (Reuters) - U.S. military veterans spoke with tribal leaders on Saturday about their shared interest in blocking a multibillion-dollar pipeline project near a Native American reservation, with as many as 3,500 veterans joining protests at the site.

Veterans Stand for Standing Rock members aim to form a human barrier in front of police to assist thousands of activists who have spent months demonstrating against plans to route the Dakota Access Pipeline beneath a lake near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.

The group of veterans, including members already gathered at the site, will also finish building a barracks and mess hall near where they constructed a headquarters at the Oceti Sakowin camp about 5 miles (8 km) north of the small town of Cannon Ball.

“Men and women who fought for our nation are now standing up for the first occupants of this land. They’re saying enough is enough,” said David Archambault II, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, in an interview. “It’s symbolic for us.”

He said the veterans intended to avoid violence as they supported their protest over the $3.8 billion pipeline, which opponents see a threat to water resources and sacred sites.

Violent confrontations have flared near the route of the pipeline, with state and local law enforcement using tear gas, rubber bullets and water hoses on the protesters, even in freezing weather.

Some 564 people have been arrested, the Morton County Sheriff’s Department said.

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“I felt it was our duty and very personally more of a call of duty than I ever felt in the service to come and stand in front of the guns and the mace and the water and the threat that they pose to these people,” Anthony Murtha, 29, a Navy veteran from Detroit, said on Friday at the Oceti Sakowin camp.

State officials on Monday ordered the thousands of protesters now present to leave the snowy camp, which is on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers land, citing harsh weather, but on Wednesday they said they would not enforce the order. The temperature in Cannon Ball is expected to fall to 4 degrees Fahrenheit (-16 Celsius) next week. [L1N1DX1M7]

The 1,172-mile (1,885-km) pipeline project, owned by Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners LP, is mostly complete, except for a segment planned to run under Lake Oahe, a reservoir formed by a dam on the Missouri River.

Protesters, who refer to themselves as “water protectors”, have been gearing up for the winter while they await the Army Corps decision on whether to allow Energy Transfer to tunnel under the river. The Army Corps has twice delayed that decision.

“Regardless of what happens with this pipeline, we now know that with unity and with prayer we can make a stand,” Archambault said. “I don’t think the federal government or corporate world is going to continue to encroach on our lands after this time.”

Additional reporting by Timothy Mclaughlin in Chicago, Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee and David Gaffen in New York; Writing by Letitia Stein; Editing by Susan Thomas and Tom Brown