Arctic island puts world on war alert

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If every man is an island, then every island is destined to be famous for 15 minutes. Yesterday it was the turn of Andoy in Norway's Arctic waters.

A Norwegian weather institute, working with the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration, launched a rocket from Andoy in the morning for the purpose of studying the Northern Lights.

A few hours later, the United States, Russia and several European governments were frantically checking reports that a missile fired from somewhere in northern Europe had entered Russian air space and had been shot down by air defence forces.

The Ministry of Defence in London was the first to deny that it had made a sneak attack. "I am confident the British have not fired any missiles at Russia," a spokesman said, adding that he was sure that he would have been told if such an attack had occurred.

Russian air defence officers modestly denied having destroyed anything. "The Moscow and Moscow region air defence did not bring down any missile today," confirmed one official.

The rumours originated with Interfax, one of Russia's leading and least unreliable news agencies, which issued a story about the phantom missile that was picked up and flashed around the world by Moscow-based Western news organisations. In seconds, stockprices were falling in Wall Street.

If it seemed too fanciful or appalling to think that the West could have accidentally attacked Russia, or that Russia had contrived an attack on itself, bankers and brokers were nevertheless aware that a war is currently in progress in the southern Russian republic of Chechnya. Missiles are in the news at the moment.

Luckily, Valery Grishin, a Russian government spokes- man, came to the rescue and said that the "missile" was a Norwegian civilian research rocket, details of which had been supplied to Russia in advance by the Norwegian authorities.

Interfax blamed the mistake on false information that was given by a high-ranking military source.

On Andoy, meanwhile, the islanders were in a state of bewilderment as their phone lines were jammed with calls from mainland Norway and abroad. Eventually, the weather institute issued a statement explaining that the rocket was carrying instruments to study the Northern Lights and had landed safely 1,000 miles north-west of Andoy - nowhere near Russia.