An Egyptian security official told Reuters news agency that “an unknown armed gang attacked the gas pipeline” at the terminal, near the town of El-Arish. The blast sent up a tower of flame and prompted officials to close the pipeline, which also supplies smaller quantities of gas to Syria and Lebanon.
The flow of gas from the main terminal at Port Said, on the Mediterranean coast, was cut to quench the fire, the Associated Press reported. The Egyptian governor of northern Sinai, who visited the area, said gas leaks forced people nearby to evacuate their homes, the AP reported.
The attackers are suspected to be members of Bedouin tribes resentful of Egypt’s government. They have long accused Cairo of marginalizing them economically and carrying out harsh security crackdowns after attacks in recent years on tourist sites in Sinai.
The same pipeline was attacked Feb. 5 during the uprising against Mubarak, halting supplies to Israel and Jordan for a month. On March 27, gunmen planted explosives at the terminal, but they failed to detonate.
Israel’s infrastructure minister, Uzi Landau, said that with the gas supply cut off, Israel’s national power company would have to use alternatives. A spokeswoman for the Israeli Electric Corp. said it would rely on natural gas from an offshore Israeli field, as well as diesel and heavy fuel, to fill the gap, along with coal, which supplies nearly 60 percent of the company’s generating needs. Power plants in Jordan can also run on diesel and heavy fuel, which are more costly and produce more pollutants than natural gas.
Egypt began supplying Israel with natural gas in 2008 under a 20-year agreement based on a 1979 bilateral peace treaty. Landau said at a news conference that the gas deal was “the most important part” of the peace accord and noted that Israel had recently agreed to the entry of additional Egyptian forces into Sinai, beyond the levels set in the treaty, to guard the pipeline.
The gas agreement has been heavily criticized by Egyptian opposition groups, which allege that it gives preferential rates to Israel. Egypt’s public prosecutor has questioned Mubarak about the deal, and he announced Saturday that several former government officials, including the former oil minister, Sameh Fahmy, would face charges of squandering public funds in connection with the gas sale. The decision is part of a broader investigation of graft during Mubarak’s years in power.
Landau asserted that Israel was paying more than other Middle Eastern countries for the Egyptian gas. He said the Tamar field off the Israeli coast, where a huge natural gas deposit was found, would become operational in 2013 and would be sufficient to meet all of Israel’s needs.
Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Daniel Ayalon said that with the turmoil in the Middle East expected to continue, Israel “must achieve self-sufficiency in its energy needs.”
A Western diplomat in Cairo said last week that the security situation in Sinai was very tenuous, with smuggling going relatively unchallenged.
“The general perception is that it’s the Wild West on steroids at this point,” the diplomat said.
Correspondent Michael Birnbaum in Cairo and special correspondent Samuel Sockol contributed to this report.