Israel uses laser to combat missile threat

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In 1989 Omar Subi, an unsuccessful Palestinian businessman from Beit Safafa, in Jerusalem, stayed with a friend in Jordan. In Amman, he said, he met the Iraqi military attache, who "asked if I would like to work for Iraqi intelligence''.

Mr Subi said he would and then met the attache in cafes, shops and the Iraqi embassy. He was shown satellite pictures of Israel and asked to visit potential military targets and mark their precise location.

"Subsequently they fired missiles at these areas, so I did a good job," said Mr Subi, on his release from prison after four years - on the grounds of ill-health - this week.

Like many spies, he found that his employers were easily impressed by his zeal in finding targets whose position was common knowledge.

Mr Subi was even summoned to Baghdad. "After meeting the intelligence people, they said they had prepared a surprise," he recalled. It was Saddam Hussein. "I was very moved. He said: `We have a shared destiny.' After two minutes I left the room.''

Mr Subi was not the most competent of spies. He was arrested soon after the first salvo of Iraqi Scud missiles hit Israel on 18 February, 1991. He attributes his capture to a mistake he made in telephoning his Iraqi controller from his home.

The 39 Scuds that hit Israel, each with a 250kg warhead, did limited damage and inflicted few casualties but they were enough to force most Israelis into air-raid shelters.

It would have been much worse if Iraq had used gas warheads, in which case Israel would probably have responded with a nuclear weapon.

For the past five years, Israel has been looking for an antidote to missile attack. The US-manned Patriot anti-missile system turned out to be ineffective. The US Air Force's claim to have destroyed 90 mobile Scud launchers in Iraq's western desert was discounted in a US government report. Instead, Israel is investing in Arrow anti-missile missiles, which will start to be deployed in 1998.

A more immediate missile threat is that posed by Katyusha rockets fired by Hizbollah guerrillas in south Lebanon into northern Israel. Despite their crudity, they can bring the whole of northern Galilee to a halt. Israeli officials say they are developing with the US a system using laser beams to destroy short-range missiles.

On Tuesday it successfully detected and destroyed a rocket in mid-air in a test at White Sands, New Mexico.

The project, called Nautilus, is still in its early development stage and uses bulky components. A fire control discovers a missile in flight and a "laser-cannon" explodes it before it can hit its target. The Israeli press reported the aim is to combine the weapon parts into a portable system.