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Updated: Thu, 17 Oct 2013 18:01:02 GMT | By CBC News, cbc.ca

Shale gas protesters clash with police in Rexton, N.B.

Police directed by protester to leave. CBC/Jen Choi

Police directed by protester to leave. CBC/Jen Choi

Shale gas protesters and RCMP trying to enforce an injunction are clashing in Rexton, N.B., leading to at least five police vehicles being set on fire and the arrest of a First Nations chief. 

In a news release, the RCMP said more than 40 protesters have been arrested for various offences including firearms offences, uttering threats, intimidation, mischief and for refusing to abide by a court injunction.

The RCMP said at least one shot was fired by someone other than police and that Molotov cocktails have been thrown at police, while at least five RCMP vehicles have been destroyed by fire. Police are also investigating suspected explosive devices at the scene.

RCMP Const. Jullie Rogers-Marsh said protesters were throwing rocks, bottles and spraying some kind of liquid onto police.

"The RCMP has worked diligently with all parties involved in hopes for a peaceful resolution. Those efforts have not been successful. Tensions were rising, and serious criminal acts are being committed," said Rogers-Marsh in a news release.

"There have been threats made to employees who were working with a private security firm at the site, as well as firearms offences, incidents of intimidation, mischief and other criminal behaviour. For those reasons, and to ensure public safety, police action was required."

The clashes started at about 1 p.m. Thursday after police fired pepper spray at the protesters, who were trying to push through the police line.

Rogers-Marsh said that no rubber bullets were used but that RCMP members used "sock rounds" — also known as bean bag rounds, which are a type of non-lethal ammunition — on two occasions during the clash in an attempt to defuse the situation.

CBC reporter, Jennifer Choi, said thick black smoke was billowing from the scene, and she could hear popping and see sparks in at least one of the flaming vehicles. 

It wasn't known whether ammunition was in the vehicles, and bystanders were backing up from the fire as a precaution, Choi said.

T.J. Burke, the lawyer for the Elsipogtog First Nation, confirmed Chief Aaron Sock is one of those arrested in the clash.

Sock is the leader of the band that has been blockading Route 134 near Rexton since Sept. 30. 

On Oct. 1, Sock issued an eviction notice to SWN Resources of Canada. His band and his band council planned to pass a resolution preventing the government and shale gas companies from continuing the work by reclaiming all unoccupied reserve land and giving it back to First Nations.

It remained unclear exactly which land is involved, and how the band council planned to take it back, but Sock contended getting SWN to remove its equipment would be a start.

Sock said that for centuries, the British Crown claimed to be holding the land in trust for his people, but since the land is being badly mismanaged, First Nations people are taking it back.

Highway blocked for weeks

The RCMP moved in on the protesters on Route 134 in Rexton early Thursday, to enforce a court injunction issued on Oct. 3 against demonstrators who have been blocking a highway for weeks.

RCMP notified the public at 7:45 a.m. about the closure of Route 134. A subsequent notice at 8:21 a.m. indicated Highway 11 was closed between Rexton and Sainte-Anne-de-Kent, and that delays could be expected.

"I can confirm police are enforcing a court injunction and in order to ensure public safety, we have closed the road until it is resolved," said RCMP spokesperson Rogers-Marsh. 

"The road will remain closed until the situation has been resolved and certainly public safety is our No. 1 priority at this point.

Police, canine unit move in

Video taken by protesters that was submitted to CBC shortly after the police started enforcing the injunction shows officers with dogs moving toward the protest encampment on the side of road. Protesters are yelling obscenities at police and inform them elders and children are present.

Meanwhile, an Anglophone North school district notice on its website said three schools in the area were open under lockdown conditions as a precaution. Around noon, the board announced Rexton Elementary, Eleanor W. Graham Middle School and Bonar Law Memorial High School would close for the day, and students would be sent home. 

Buses were being organized, and any parents wanting to pick up their children could report to the school office.

"Safety and security is paramount for our students and staff," said the school district's public notice.

The road between Rexton and Highway 11 has been the scene of the protest, involving a coalition of natives and non-natives opposed to shale gas exploration.

Protesters moved into the area on Sept. 30, initially establishing a barricade to the staging area used by SWN Resources Canada to park its exploration vehicles and equipment.

The protest progressed to the point where barricades were also established on the road, preventing traffic from going through.

SWN Resources went to the Court of Queen's Bench and successfully sought an injunction to end the protest.

The injunction authorizes police to arrest and remove anyone contravening the order to allow traffic to pass on the highway for SWN Resources employees to access their vehicles and conduct exploration work without harassment. However, with negotiations taking place between the two sides, the RCMP didn't immediately enforce the injunction.

On Friday, the injunction was extended. A single lane of Route 134 was subsequently reopened.

During a hearing, court was told SWN Resources is losing $60,000 every day its seismic exploration trucks remain blockaded in the compound off Route 134.

The RCMP said the court injunction remains in effect and anyone who violates its conditions can be arrested and charged. 

N.B. chiefs call for peace

Chief Gabriel Atwin said members of Kingsclear First Nation are now demonstrating peacefully on Route 105. 

In a news release, Atwin said the Assembly of First Nations in New Brunswick "strongly condemns the acts of aggression that have taken place today within the Mi'kmaq traditional territory near Elsipogtog. We urge all sides not to resort of violence as history has proven these tactics are not productive."

Atwin noted, however, that for the past two years, First Nations in New Brunswick have tried to work within the confines of "a restrictive, compartmentalized consultation process" when it comes to seismic testing in the province. 

He said the whole process is "completely unworkable because it runs counter to our customs and traditions."

In the same release Assembly co-Chair Chief George Ginnish said the consultation process should include "conversation on potential impacts to our constitutionally protected rights, and provide options to mitigate these dangers."

Ginnish has called on "an immediate end to the violence by all involved, to restart the process taking into account all perspectives in New Brunswick and the inalienable rights of aboriginals."

Politicians in New Brunswick have also spoken out about the protest. 

Opposition Leader Brian Gallant released a statement calling on protesters to respect the injunction and that he hopes for a peaceful resolution. 

"I witnessed the protest first-hand this morning. There is much angst and anxiety at the protest site and in the surrounding communities. The dialogue must immediately resume in order to resolve the differences that have arisen," he said.

New Brunswick Premier David Alward's office has not returned calls from the CBC, but Alward posted a statement on the government's website saying he is "deeply troubled that violence has erupted on Route 134 near Rexton."

"While we respect and defend the right of individuals to protest peacefully, we cannot endorse or tolerate unlawful activity," he said.

Alward also said the government of New Brunswick will do everything in its power to bring about a peaceful resolution. 

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