An explosion has rocked a natural gas terminal near Egypt's border with Israel, sending flames shooting into the air and forcing the shutdown of the country's export pipeline.
It was the second incident in the past month on the al-Sabil terminal near the town of El-Arish just 30 miles from the border with Israel. On March 27 gunmen planted explosives at the terminal, which failed to detonate.
The valves controlling the flow of gas from the main terminal in Port Said on the Mediterranean coast were shut down to stifle the flames, cutting gas exports to Israel, Jordan and Syria.
Egyptian officials did not say if the explosion was due to sabotage or an accident.
Bedouin tribesmen in the area have attacked the pipeline in the past.
Security forces often clash with the Bedouin in the Sinai Peninsula, who complain of being neglected and oppressed by the central government. Tribesmen attempt to draw attention to their grievances by blocking roads, burning tyres, or attacking infrastructure.
"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.
Israeli infrastructure minister Uzi Landau told Israeli Army Radio that Israel had allowed the Egyptians to bring more military forces into Sinai to protect the pipeline beyond the number of troops allowed by the 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.
Asked if Israel has other alternatives if the gas supply is not resumed, he said, "We are obviously preparing for such things." The Israeli gas field known as Tamar will begin producing gas in 2013, he said, and will be able to provide Israel's gas needs. In the meantime Israel can generate electricity using coal, diesel and the natural gas it already produces, he said.