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Israel missile test fuels Syria tension

As tensions rise in the region, the UN says more than 2 million Syrians are now refugees.

FILE: An Israeli missile is launched from the Iron Dome defence missile system. Picture: AFP

JERUSALEM/MOSCOW/BEIRUT/GENEVA - Israel has confirmed it tested a US-backed missile system in the Mediterranean on Tuesday following claims by Russia that it had detected missiles being fired and landing in the sea.

The Israeli government did not announce the launch in advance, prompting Russia's announcement which kept the world on edge at a time when the United States continues its deliberation of an attack on Syria.

The morning launch was first reported by Moscow media that quoted Russian defence officials as saying two ballistic "objects" had been fired eastward from the centre of the sea - roughly in the direction of Syria.

The news ruffled financial markets until Israel's Defence Ministry said that it, along with a Pentagon team, had carried out a test-launch of a Sparrow missile. The Sparrow, which simulates the long-range missiles of Syria and Iran, is used for target practice by Israel's US-backed ballistic shield Arrow.

"Israel routinely fires missiles or drones off its shores to test its own ballistic defence capabilities," a US official said in Washington.

Western naval forces have been gathering in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea since President Bashar al-Assad was accused of carrying out a gas attack on 21 August in his more than two-year-old conflict with rebels trying to topple him.

Damascus denies responsibility for the incident. US President Barack Obama had been widely expected to order reprisal strikes on Syria last week but put them off to seek support from Washington lawmakers first.

With US action on Syria delayed as Obama confers with Congress, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has sought to play up the Jewish state's ability to deal with its foes alone. On Tuesday, the premier spoke of anti-missile systems as a national "wall of iron".

"These things give us the power to protect ourselves, and anyone who considers harming us would do best not to," he said in a speech.

Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon shrugged off a question from reporters on whether the launch might have been ill-timed. He said Israel had to work to maintain its military edge and "this necessitates field trials and, accordingly, a successful trial was conducted to test our systems. And we will continue to develop and to research and to equip the IDF [Israel Defence Forces] with the best systems in the world."

Arrow designer Uzi Rabin said tests of the anti-missile system are planned "long, long in advance" and generally go unnoticed. "What apparently made the difference today is the high state of tension over Syria and Russia's unusual vigilance," he told Reuters.

A Russian Defence Ministry spokesman quoted by the Interfax news agency said the launch was picked up by an early warning radar station at Armavir, near the Black Sea, which is designed to detect missiles from Europe and Iran.

RIA, another Russian news agency, later quoted a source in Syria's "state structures" as saying the objects had fallen harmlessly into the sea.

The Russian Defence Ministry declined comment to Reuters.

Moscow is Assad's big-power ally and has mobilised its own navy in the face of US military preparations to punish the Syrian government for its alleged killing of more than 1,400 people in the chemical strike in an embattled Damascus suburb.

REFUGEE COUNT PASSES TWO MILLION

The number of Syrian refugees has passed the two million mark, a United Nations (UN) agency said on Tuesday, warning that the world faces its greatest threat to peace since the Vietnam war.

The UN refugee agency UNHCR said in a statement on Tuesday that a near tenfold increase over the past 12 months in the rate of refugees crossing Syria's borders into Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon - to a daily average of nearly 5,000 men, women and children - had pushed the total living abroad above two million.

That represents some 10 percent of Syria's population, the UNHCR said. With a further 4.25 million estimated to have been displaced but still resident inside the country, which leaves close to a third of all Syrians living away from home.

Comparing the figures to the peak of Afghanistan's refugee crisis two decades ago, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres, said: "Syria has become the great tragedy of this century - a disgraceful humanitarian calamity with suffering and displacement unparalleled in recent history."

Speaking of the acceleration in the crisis, he said: "What is appalling is that the first million fled Syria in two years. The second million fled Syria in six months."

At a news conference in Geneva, Guterres noted that a total of six million were displaced by the war: "At this particular moment, it's the highest number of displaced people anywhere in the world. And if one looks at the peak of the Afghan crisis we have probably very similar numbers of people displaced.

"The risks for global peace and security that the present Syria crisis represents, I'm sure, are not smaller than what we have witnessed in any other crisis that we have had since the Vietnam war," said Guterres, a former Portuguese prime minister.