Millions of liters of crude oil have gushed out of a pipeline to flood 200 acres of a desert nature reserve in southern Israel, officials said on Thursday.
Israel Radio reported that the breach happened by accident during maintenance work on Wednesday night on the Eilat-Ashkelon pipeline, some 18 km (12 miles) north of the Red Sea resort of Eilat near Kibbutz Ketura.
Doron Nissim of Israel's Nature and Parks Authority said the black slick had run and pooled in ravines, but appeared to have spared the 4,250-acre (1,720-hectare) Evrona reserve's rare deer and douma palms.
In the absence of heavy rainfall, there was little chance of the oil sluicing to Eilat and endangering Red Sea marine life, but there was "no doubt that insects and other crawling animals have been harmed," he said.
The spill forced the evacuation of dozens of Jordanian nationals who complained about breathing problems and dizziness. Three people in the area were evacuated to hospital.
The leak was stopped before the torrent of oil could cross the nearby Jordanian border, Israel's Environment Ministry said.
Environment Ministry official Guy Samet estimated the spillage at millions of liters, telling Israel Radio: "Rehabilitation will take months, if not years."
Nissim said pools of oil would probably be drained with suction equipment, and contaminated earth might also be removed.
Another Environment Ministry official told Army Radio that the spill was one of the worst environmental accidents in Israel's history.
The main road leading to Eilat from central Israel, Highway 90, was closed intermittently. The Environment Ministry advised the town to cancel a triathlon that was due to take athletes through the contaminated area. Jpost.com staff contributed to this report.