Israel test-fired a U.S.-backed missile over the Mediterranean Sea on Tuesday in an unannounced move that added to jitters in the region amid possible strikes on Syria.
An Israeli warplane fired a “Sparrow” missile that was successfully detected and shot down by an interceptor shortly after 9.15 a.m. local time (3.15 a.m. ET), according to statements issued by Israel and the United States.
The action appeared to take officials in some countries by surprise – not least Russia, whose official Itar-Tass news agency reported that Moscow had detected the launch of two ballistic “objects” in the Mediterranean area.
It also did little to calm fears in the region which is under the shadow of an imminent military strike on Syria by the United States.
The news ruffled financial markets until Israel said it was behind the test.
The Sparrow, which simulates the long-range missiles of Syria and Iran, is used for target practice by Israel’s U.S.-backed ballistic shield Arrow, Reuters reported.
Pentagon officials initially denied the Russian report of a missile launch, calling it “mischevious,” then confirmed the Israeli test but denied any meaningful U.S. military involvement.
Later, Pentagon press secretary George Little issued a written statement confirming the move and calling it a "U.S.-Israel Missile Defense test."
He said it was a “long-planned” action “to help evaluate the Arrow Ballistic Missile Defense system's ability."
“Early this morning, the United States Department of Defense provided technical assistance and support to the Israeli Missile Defense Organization flight test of a Sparrow target missile over the Mediterranean Sea,” the statement said.
“The United States and Israel cooperate on a number of long-term ballistic missile defense development projects to address common challenges in the region. This test had nothing to do with United States consideration of military action to respond to Syria's chemical weapons attack.”
In its statement, Israel's defense ministry said the launch had "tested the ability of the Arrow anti-missile system."
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon shrugged off a question from reporters on whether the launch might have been ill-timed, Reuters reported. 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."
Meanwhile, one of the five American guided-missile destroyers positioned in the eastern Mediterranean for possible airstrikes against Syria headed for home on Monday.
The U.S.S. Mahan was scheduled to head back to its home port in Norfolk, Va., more than a week ago when she was ordered into the eastern Mediterranean for possible launch operations. There are no current plans to replace the Mahan with another guided-missile surface warship, officials said.
The Mahan’s departure leaves four guided missile destroyers, the Barry, Gravely, Ramage and Stout and at least one submarine in the region, each loaded with up to 50 Tomahawk cruise missiles.
The aircraft carrier U.S.S. Nimitz, along with one guided missile cruiser and three guided missile destroyers, also remained in the Red Sea as a “prudent” precaution but as of Monday there were no plans for the Nimitz to take part in any potential operation against Syria, according to officials.
NBC News' Paul Goldman and Reuters contributed to this report.
First published September 3 2013, 7:49 AM