Sinai gas pipeline - AP - 6/2/2011
The pipeline explosion in the Sinai, Feb. 6, 2011. Photo by AP
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Five weeks after Egypt resumed supplying gas to Israel after the last sabotage attack on the pipeline, a group of armed men blew it up again during the wee hours of Tuesday night.

The gas supply to Israel from Egypt has completely halted as a result.

This was the third attack on the pipeline since Hosni Mubarak's regime was overthrown after 18 days of rioting in February. On February 5, as protests rocked Egypt, the pipeline was bombed. Repairs took weeks, but the supply resumed only in mid-March.

Then, on March 27, a group of armed men stormed the gas terminal in El Arish and placed bombs that failed to detonate.

Repairs after the latest bombing are expected to take a month to six weeks. But it remains to be seen if Egypt will resume the supply to Israel afterward, if only because of the pipeline's vulnerability.

Some residents of the nearby village of Al-Sabil fled their homes following the blast, which sent a fireball flaming skyward. Though Egyptian authorities are trying to contain the blaze, it could continue for days.

Yesterday's bombing of the metering station near el-Arish damaged not only the pipeline but also the valves and monitoring system, leading the station's owner Gasco (a subsidiary of the Egyptian gas company E-Gas ) to shut down the flow throughout the northern Sinai. The outage also affects the kingdom of Jordan.

Egypt's security measures protecting the pipeline were scanty despite the previous pipeline attacks. Egyptian wire service MENA quoted a security official promising to tighten security.

Israeli security sources say Cairo's temporary regime cannot rein in the Bedouin tribes in the Sinai, which is in anarchy; the Mubarak regime certainly failed to maintain control. Some sources in Israeli circles suspect Egypt of being lax about protecting the pipeline to begin with, given the escalating criticism over the gas sales to Israel.

Opposition figures in Egypt had long claimed that Cairo's deals with Israel were tainted with corruption and that the gas had been sold on the cheap, an allegation that National Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau firmly denies. On Saturday, Egypt's public prosecutor ordered former energy minister Sameh Fahmy and six other officials to stand trial on charges of squandering public funds over the natural gas deal with Israel.

No organization has claimed credit for the attack, but security sources suspect it's a local Bedouin unit. However, the concept could have originated with Hamas or other extreme Islamic groups in Gaza, which could have paid the Bedouins to attack the pipeline.

Meanwhile, Egyptian gas's biggest client, the Israel Electric Corporation, has switched to buying from the Tethys Sea group at a higher cost (see related stories on Page 12 and Page 8 ).

The national power utility will also revert to powering its plants with coal and mazut fuel oil, both of which are considered "dirtier" fuels, but which serve in emergency. Israel was prepared for this eventuality, Landau said yesterday, reassuring that power blackouts aren't likely "at the moment." Israel has other fuels in store to keep the power stations running, the minister said.