Masked gunmen blew up a natural gas terminal near Egypt's border with Israel on Wednesday, sending flames shooting into the air in the early hours of the morning and forcing the shutdown of the country's gas export pipeline to Israel and Jordan.
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"An unknown armed gang attacked the gas pipeline," said an Egyptian security source, adding that the flow of gas to Israel and Jordan had indeed been hit. "Authorities closed the main source of gas supplying the pipeline and are working to extinguish the fire."
Egyptian officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media, did not say if explosion was due to sabotage or an accident.
A security official said six masked gunmen arrived at the terminal in two pickup trucks without number plates and overpowered the eight guards on duty before ordering them to leave. They then planted the explosives, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, but suspicion has fallen on Sinai Bedouins angered by what they see as the neglect of their areas by the central government or Muslim militants opposed to the export of natural gas to Israel.
"Those who carried out the explosion have harmed the people of Sinai more than any others," said Abdul-Wahab Mabrouk, the governor of North Sinai, while inspecting the site. He said the explosion also damaged the local power plant and gas leaks forced people to evacuate their homes.
He complained that the security situation was still weak and there were not enough police.
It was the second attack in the past month on the al-Sabil terminal, which is just 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the border with Israel. On March 27, gunmen planted explosives at the terminal, which failed to detonate. In February, Bedouin tribesmen in the area blew up a section of the pipeline, stopping exports to Israel and Jordan for a month. They also attempted to sabotage the pipeline in July 2010.
The flow of gas from the main terminal in Port Said on the Mediterranean coast was shut down to stifle the 20-meter flames, cutting gas exports to Israel and Jordan. The fire, which sent residents scurrying from their homes, continued to rage well past dawn.
In Israel, National Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau told Army Radio on Wednesday that the country "should be prepared for a situation where gas flow from Egypt will stop."
In response to the pipeline explosion, the Israel Electric Company said in a statement that it would use all available resources to ensure reliable service, "including the use of alternate fuels approved by the National Infrastructure Ministry and the Environmental Protection Ministry."
Israel gets 40 percent of its natural gas from Egypt, a deal built on their landmark 1979 peace accord. But 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 related to the natural gas deal with Israel.
The decision, part of a probe on graft during Mubarak's 30-year rule, said the deal in question caused Egypt losses worth more than $714 million, and enabled a local businessman to make financial profits.
Egypt has potential natural gas reserves of 62 trillion cubic feet (1.7 trillion cubic meters), the 18th largest in the world.