India has tested a new version of a ballistic missile that is capable of carrying nuclear warheads. The test has been conducted at a time when India is locked in a military standoff with its rival Pakistan. India has said the missile test has no relation to tensions with Pakistan, but Islamabad has called it "prejudicial to regional stability."
Indian officials have said the nuclear capable Agni missile tested early Friday has a range of about 700 kilometers. According to defense officials, all parameters were met in the test, which took place at the eastern coastal state of Orissa.
Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee called the missile test a "big step forward" and said it was one of the many steps being taken to boost national security. He said all five nuclear powers: Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States as well as Pakistan, and several other countries were informed about it in advance.
An Indian foreign ministry spokeswoman, Nirupama Rao, said the timing of the missile test was not "abrupt or sudden," but was determined solely by technical factors.
She said the test had no relation to the current border tensions between India and Pakistan, and was not meant as a political message.
"We've underlined this fact that this test is not provocative. It's not intended to be provocative or destabilizing. The test is part of the process of development of our indigenous missile capability," she said.
For more than a month, the nuclear armed neighbors have massed hundreds of thousands of troops on their borders raising fears of a war between them. The military build-up was sparked by an attack on India's parliament last month.
Several defense analysts said the missile test may intensify tensions with Pakistan, because it could be interpreted as a provocation by India.
But the analysts also said the test was probably planned months in advance - and pointed out that January and February are considered the best months for testing because the weather conditions help in tracking the missile's path.
Missiles in the Agni series are a key part of India's efforts to build a credible nuclear deterrent against China and Pakistan. The most advanced version has a range of more than 2,000 kilometers, and is capable of reaching targets deep inside Pakistani territory and parts of China. This longer-range version has already been tested.
Besides the Agni series, India has also developed the short-range Prithvi missile, with a range of about 250 kilometers. This has already been incorporated into India's defense arsenal.
India conducted nuclear tests in 1998, and has been engaged in the development of its missile delivery system for several years. India has pledged not to be the first to use nuclear weapons, but says it will retaliate if another country uses them first.