The North Dakota National Guard is withdrawing the two unloaded missile launchers it had stationed near the Dakota Access Pipeline construction site in order to “observe” peaceful protestors, which The Daily Beast first reported on Tuesday.
“Its removal demonstrates our commitment to deescalating any tensions its presence may have caused,” Guard spokesman William Prokopyk said in a statement.
Two Avengers launchers, Humvee trucks with rotating turrets that can be armed with guns and eight Stinger surface-to-air missiles, were deployed a day after protestors from the nearby Standing Rock Indian Reservation had spotted one of them deployed on private land overlooking a pipeline work site.
Several of the protestors were arrested for trespassing.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied Dakota Access, LLC an easement to extend its pipeline under Lake Oahe, which lies on federal land and borders Standing Rock. Dakota Access has vowed to continue building the 1,200-mile oil pipeline, most likely on private land in Morton County.
On Oct. 23, 2016, the Morton County Sheriff’s Department announced it had shot down an activist’s drone after it had approached a police helicopter “in a threatening manner” —an accusation the drone’s operator denied.
But Prokopyk said Army Guardsmen—who have deployed alongside local police to guard the pipeline—were using the unloaded Avengers strictly as observation platforms. The Avengers boast sophisticated night-vision equipment that many other Guard vehicles lack.
“It was employed for over a month in a passive role to observe areas within Morton County where numerous incidences of criminal trespass and mischief have occurred,” Prokopyk said of the pair of Avengers.
“In the same vein as when we used unarmed Blackhawk helicopters to put out a fire near the protest camp in October of 2016, the unarmed Avenger was used in an observation only role to support public safety in southern Morton County.”
Not only were the Avengers not armed while stationed near the work site—there aren’t even any missiles for the vehicles anywhere in North Dakota, Prokopyk explained. “All munitions are strictly controlled by the United States Army.”
Prokopyk denied that authorities sent in the Avengers in order to intimidate anti-pipeline activists.
“If they were placed to intimidate anyone, it wouldn’t have taken a month for someone to notice them.”
The North Dakota Guard selected the Avengers for the “observation” mission not only because of the launchers’ night-vision equipment, but also owing to their enclosed, heated cabins, Prokopyk said. Taking into account wind chill, winter temperatures in North Dakota can dip below negative 40 degrees.
Having withdrawn the Avengers, Guardsmen will continue monitoring protestors using handheld night-vision equipment, Prokopyk said.
“Good thing we’re in a heat wave,” he added. “It’s almost 30 degrees!”