Israel conducts missile test as Syria tension mounts

Move comes as UN says two million Syrians are now refugees and US and France push for military action


Israel and the US conducted joint tests of their missile operations in the Mediterranean Sea today.

The tests, which were detected by Russian radar, came as the United States prepares for a possible military strike on Syria over what it says was a chemical weapons attack by government forces in their conflict with rebels trying to overthrow president Bashar al-Assad.

The Israeli defence ministry confirmed it had tested a missile used as a target in a US-funded anti-missile system at 9.15am, about the same time as the Russian radar picked up the launch.

“The trajectory of these objects goes from the central part of the Mediterranean Sea toward the eastern part of the Mediterranean coast,“ Russia‘s Interfax news agency quoted a defence ministry spokesman as saying.

The spokesman 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.

He did not say who had carried out the launch and whether any impact had been detected, but RIA 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.

The Russian Embassy in Syria said there were no signs of a missile attack or explosions in Damascus, state-run Itar-Tass reported.

Syria’s early warning radar system did not detect any missiles landing on Syrian territory, according to a Syrian security source quoted by Lebanon’s al-Manar television.

Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu informed president Vladimir Putin of the launch but it was not immediately clear how he reacted.

Brent crude oil extended gains to rise by more than $1 per barrel and Dubai‘s share index fell after Russia said it detected the launches.

Russia opposes any outside military intervention in the Syrian civil war, and a defence ministry official had earlier criticised the United States for deploying warships in the Mediterranean close to Syria.

Russia, Dr Assad’s most powerful backer during the more than two-year-old conflict in Syria, says it suspects the attack was staged by rebels to provoke military intervention and is critical of US naval deployments in the Mediterranean.

Five US destroyers and an amphibious ship are in the Mediterranean, poised for possible strikes against Syria with cruise missiles - which are not ballistic. US officials said the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz and four other ships in its strike group moved into the Red Sea on Monday.

“The pressure being applied by the United States causes particular concern,“ Itar-Tass quoted Russian defence ministry official Oleg Dogayev as saying.

He said “the dispatch of ships armed with cruise missiles toward Syria‘s shores has a negative effect on the situation in the region.”

The United Nations refugee agency said earlier today that more than 2 million refugees have now fled Syria’s civil war.

The tide of children, women and men crossing borders has risen almost ten-fold over the past 12 months, figures from the UN refugee agency UNHCR showed.

“Syria has become the great tragedy of this century - a disgraceful humanitarian calamity with suffering and displacement unparalleled in recent history,” the UN high commissioner for refugees, António Guterres, said in a statement.

On average, almost 5,000 people take refuge in Syria’s neighbouring countries every day, according to the report.

“If the situation continues to deteriorate at this rate, the number of refugees will only grow, and some neighboring countries could be brought to the point of collapse,” said UNHCR envoy and Hollywood actor Angelina Jolie.

The number of people displaced inside Syria was holding steady at around 4.25 million, the report said.

Ministers from Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey - the four main hosts of Syrian refugees - are due to meet officials from the agency in Geneva tomorrow to work out ways to raise more international aid.

The UNHCR said last month its work had so far stopped the refugee crisis spiraling out of control.

But “a far more substantial and coherent strategy” was needed than the $2.9 billion refugee aid effort already underway it added then.

Syria’s uprising against four decades of rule by the family of president Bashar al-Assad has turned into an increasingly sectarian civil war that has killed more than 100,000 people.