CAIRO (Reuters) – Saboteurs blew up a pipeline that runs through Egypt's North Sinai, state television said, disrupting flows to Israel and Jordan, after Islamists called on militants to exploit the unrest that has rocked the government.
"It is a big terrorist operation," a state TV reporter said.
A security source in North Sinai said "foreign elements" targeted the branch of the pipe that supplies Jordan.
A security source said the Egyptian army closed the main source of gas supplying the pipeline and were controlling the fire. Television footage showed a tower of flame at the scene.
Jordan said gas supplies from Egypt were expected to remain halted for a week until the pipeline was repaired. Israel said it expected to be without Egyptian gas "for a number of days."
A Jordanian energy source told Reuters the kingdom had switched power stations to burning fuel oil and diesel as a precaution, after the cut-off of the Egyptian gas supplies that help generate most of Jordan's electricity.
Israel's National Infrastructure Ministry said it also had alternative energy sources available and anticipated no disruption to domestic electricity production. "The Israeli economy should prepare for a number of days without the supply of natural gas from Egypt," the ministry said in a statement.
The attack happened as demonstrations against President Hosni Mubarak entered their 12th day, with no sign of an end to the confrontation which has pitted the 82-year-old leader against thousands of anti-government protesters.
"Saboteurs took advantage of the security situation and blew up the gas pipeline," a state television correspondent said.
The SITE intelligence group, which monitors al Qaeda and other Islamist websites, said some groups had been urging Islamic militants to attack the pipeline to Israel.
"Jihadists suggested that Muslims in Sinai take advantage of Egyptian unrest and strike the Arish-Ashkelon gas pipeline, arguing that it would have a major impact on Israel," SITE said.
Israel gets 40 percent of its natural gas from Egypt, a deal built on their landmark 1979 peace accord.
The company that supplies Egyptian gas to Israel is East Mediterranean Gas (EMG), and one of the major shareholders in the company is Mubarak associate and former Egyptian intelligence chief Hussein Salem.
Opposition groups have long complained that Egyptian gas is sold to Israel at preferential prices and that the contract with EMG violated bureaucratic regulations. The government insists it is done on commercial terms and everything is in order.
Egypt is a modest gas exporter, using pipelines to export to Israel, Jordan and other regional states. It also exports via liquefied natural gas facilities on its north coast, but those are not in the Sinai region.
The North Sinai source said the attack was carried out by "foreign elements."
"We are now relying on Bedouin leadership in the areas surrounding to help security apparatus with the investigation and give us hints of any other destructive acts," he said. Abdel Wahhab Mabrouk, the area's governor, told state TV: "By closing the taps they contained the fire and we assure the people there are no human losses. It is an act of sabotage."
Egypt declared a high state of alert in the area, another security source said. Gunmen opened fire on a governorate building in North Sinai but no casualties were reported.
Later, unknown assailants threw a grenade at an empty church in Rafah, near the border with Gaza. Rafah's public library was set also set on fire, witnesses said. Islamic books had been removed before the blaze started, they said.
Residents in the area reported a huge explosion and said flames were raging near the pipeline in the El-Arish area.
SITE quoted one Islamist website author as saying: "To our brothers, the Bedouins of Sinai, the heroes of Islam, strike with an iron fist because this is a chance to stop the supply to the Israelites."
Sinai Bedouins have long grumbled about being neglected and have sporadically clashed with Egyptian security forces. Many Bedouin were rounded up after a series of explosions in Sinai tourist resorts between 2004 and 2006.
Israel's Yam Tetis field off coastal Ashkelon was prepared to help compensate for the loss of Egyptian gas, the National Infrastructure Ministry said in a statement.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Friday his country planned to draw increasingly on its own gas fields.
(Reporting by Tom Perry, Marwa Awad, Mohamed Abdellah, Jonathan Wright and Samia Nakhoul in Cairo, Yusri Mohamed in Ismailia, Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem; Sulieman al-Khalidi in Amman; Writing by Alison Williams)