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Israel says carries out missile launching test

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel carried out a missile test on Thursday, the Defence Ministry said, raising speculation the launch was part of a program to develop longer-range weapons which could act as a deterrent against Iran.

Israel Radio said the missile tested was capable of carrying an “unconventional payload”. It quoted unidentified foreign reports as saying Israel was developing the Jericho III long-range surface-to-surface missile.

The radio report said Israel has carried out tests to improve anti-missile systems to intercept both short- and medium-range rockets, including Katyusha rockets used by Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon and missiles in Iran’s arsenal.

“A successful missile launch was carried out within the framework of examining rocket propulsion,” the Defence Ministry said in a brief statement.

Amateur photos posted on Israeli news Web sites showed a white plume in the sky above central Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said on Monday that Israel would consider “all options” to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

Israel is believed to have atomic arms and foreign analysts have said for many years that its Jericho I and Jericho II missiles can carry nuclear warheads. Analysts say the Jericho missiles are a variant of the civilian Shavit missile which Israel uses to launch satellites into space.

The Hebrew YNet news Web site quoted unnamed defence officials as saying the test had been “dramatic”.

Israel believes Iran could have a nuclear bomb by 2010 and says an Iranian nuclear weapon would threaten the existence of the Jewish state.

Iran denies seeking nuclear weapons and says it is enriching uranium only for use in generating electricity.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said during a visit to Washington last year that the Jewish state was working on a joint U.S.-Israeli system for countering ballistic threats.

He said the project’s lowest tier -- Iron Dome -- was near completion and the first trials could be carried out within 2-1/2 years.

Developed by Israeli arms firm Rafael, Iron Dome is billed as the most effective answer to the crude rockets favored by Palestinian militants.

The next tier of the layered anti-missile system is David’s Sling, which would tackle medium-range rockets like those fired by Hezbollah guerrillas at Israel during the 2006 Lebanon war.

Barak said David’s Sling, a joint Israeli-U.S. initiative, would “take a little more time” than Iron Dome to reach trials.

Additional reporting by Dan Williams, Writing by Ori Lewis; Editing by Elizabeth Piper