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Middle East on alert for Iranian attack as Lufthansa suspends Tehran flights

FILE PHOTO: Strike organised by Verdi union at Frankfurt Airport

BERLIN/DUBAI (Reuters) -The German airline Lufthansa on Thursday extended the suspension of its flights to Tehran due to the situation in the Middle East, which is on alert for Iranian retaliation for a suspected Israeli air strike on Iran's embassy in Syria.

An Iranian news agency had published an Arabic report on the social media platform X saying all airspace over Tehran had been closed for military drills, but then removed the report and denied issuing such news.

The region and the United States have been on alert for a retaliatory attack by Iran since April 1, when Israeli warplanes were suspected of bombing the Iranian embassy compound in Syria.

Lufthansa on Thursday said it had suspended flights to and from Tehran until probably April 13, extending its suspension by two days.

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A spokesperson said it had decided not to operate a flight from Frankfurt to Tehran last weekend to avoid the crew having to disembark to spend the night in Tehran.

Lufthansa and its subsidiary Austrian Airlines are the only two Western carriers flying into Tehran, which is mostly served by Turkish and Middle Eastern airlines.

Austrian Airlines, which is owned by Lufthansa and flies from Vienna to Tehran six times a week, said it was still planning to fly on Thursday but was adjusting timings to avoid an overnight layover.

There was no immediate word from other international airlines that fly to Tehran. Iranian air space is also a key overflight route for Emirates' and Qatar Airways' flights to North America.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Israel "must be punished and it shall be" for the strike, which killed seven members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, among them a senior commander in its elite overseas unit, the Quds Force.

Israel, which launched a war in the Gaza Strip six months ago against Iran-backed Hamas, has not confirmed it was behind the strike on Damascus, but the Pentagon has said it was.

IRANIAN RESPONSE TO ISRAELI STRIKE AWAITED

In an apparent response to Khamenei, Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz said Israel would respond if Iran attacked Israel from its own soil.

The United States and its allies believe major missile or drone strikes by Iran or its proxies against military and government targets in Israel are imminent, Bloomberg reported on Wednesday, citing U.S. and Israeli security sources.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in a call with Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, made clear the U.S. would stand with Israel against any threats by Iran, the State Department said.

U.S. Middle East envoy Brett McGurk called the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Iraq to ask them to deliver a message to Iran urging it to lower tensions, a source with knowledge of the situation said.

Iran's foreign ministry said those countries had spoken on the phone with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian.

On Jan. 8, 2020, Iran's Revolutionary Guards mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian passenger flight shortly after it took off from Tehran at a time of heightened tensions with Washington over the killing of Quds Force head Qasem Soleimani in a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad airport.

Iranian forces had fired missiles at military bases housing U.S. troops in Iraq in retaliation for the killing of Soleimani on Jan. 3.

Iranian-backed groups have entered the fray across the region since Israel launched its assault on Gaza in response to a Hamas attack on Israel on Oct. 7 that killed 1,200 people, according to Israeli tallies.

More than 33,000 Palestinians have since been killed by Israeli bombardment, according to Gaza's health ministry.

(Reporting by Birgit Mittwollen, Riham Alkousaa, Ilona Wissenbach and Lisa Barrington; Writing by Riham Alkousaa, Parisa Hafezi and Stephen Coates; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Neil Fullick)