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.
It was the second attack in just the past month on the el-Sabil terminal near the Sinai Peninsula town of El-Arish just 30 miles (50 kilometers) from Israel. On March 27, gunmen planted explosives at the terminal, but they failed to detonate.
The flow of gas from the main terminal in Port Said on the Mediterranean coast was shut down to stifle the 65-foot (20-meter) flames, cutting gas exports to Israel and Jordan. The fire continued to rage well past dawn.
No one has claimed responsibility for Wednesday's attack, but suspicion immediately fell 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.
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.
In Israel, Infrastructure Ministry spokeswoman Maya Etzioni confirmed that the gas supply was cut off early Wednesday.
In Jordan, which depends on Egyptian gas to generate 80 percent of its electricity, Energy Ministry spokesman Mahmoud al-Ais said the country must use the more expensive oil for its power stations.
Bedouin tribesmen in the El-Arish area have attacked the pipeline in the past, including on Feb. 5, when they blew up a section, stopping exports to Israel and Jordan for a month. They also attempted to sabotage the pipeline in July 2010.
Security forces often clash with Sinai's Bedouin, who complain of being neglected and oppressed by the central government in Cairo. Tribesmen attempt to draw attention to their grievances by blocking roads, burning tires, or attacking infrastructure.
Prime Minister Essam Sharaf visited Sinai earlier this week, pledging to address their grievances and direct more state funds to the development of their areas.
On Tuesday, Egypt's state news agency reported that the main highway in the area was temporarily closed by protesting families of security detainees before the army reopened it. Following attacks by militants on resorts in the southern Sinai between 2004 and 2006, thousands of Bedouins were detained, increasing local resentment of the central government.
The number of Egyptian forces in the Sinai is regulated by the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty, which prohibits the deployment of military forces in the section of the Sinai bordering Israel, leaving security in that area in the hands of lightly armed police and border guards.
However, security deteriorated in Sinai following the Feb. 11 ouster of longtime leader Hosni Mubarak and the disintegration of the police force during the 18-day uprising that forced him out. This prompted Egypt to deploy the army in the border area with Israeli acquiescence.
In Israel on Wednesday, Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau told Army Radio that the country had allowed the Egyptians to bring more military forces into Sinai to protect the pipeline beyond the number of troops allowed by the 1979 peace agreement.
"There is great importance in protecting the peace agreement with Egypt, and the gas contract with Israel is perhaps the most important agreement between us and the Egyptians, which bases peace not only on a written document but also on important economic interests," he said.
Egypt's gas exports to Israel have long been controversial for a population that overwhelmingly views Israelis in a negative light and in a recent poll more than half of all Egyptians suggested the peace treaty be annulled. Last week, authorities detained former Oil Minister Sameh Fahmy and seven of his aides over allegations they harmed Egypt's interests by supplying Israel with gas at rates far below market prices.
Danny Yatom, a former head of Israel's Mossad intelligence service, said his country could no longer depend on a stable supply of gas from Egypt and needed to speed up the development of its own gas reserves.
"We need to understand that this is a problem we're going to live with for a very long time, and we need to start preparing an alternative now," Yatom told Army Radio.
The Israeli gas field known as "Tamar" will begin producing gas in 2013 and in the meantime, Israel can generate electricity using coal, diesel and the natural gas it already produces.
Egypt has potential natural gas reserves of 62 trillion cubic feet (1.7 trillion cubic meters), the 18th largest in the world.
Associated Press writers Matti Friedman in Jerusalem and Dale Gavlak in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.