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Israeli military says Iran has launched drones at Israel, will take hours to arrive

FILE - Iranian police special forces rappel down from their helicopter during an exercise commemorating "Police Week", in downtown Tehran, Iran, Friday, Oct. 7, 2011
FILE - Iranian police special forces rappel down from their helicopter during an exercise commemorating "Police Week", in downtown Tehran, Iran, Friday, Oct. 7, 2011 Copyright Vahid Salemi/AP
Copyright Vahid Salemi/AP
By Euronews with AP
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Following an airstrike in Syria last week that killed two Iranian generals, Israel has been on high alert. Iran has blamed Israel for the strike and vowed retaliation.

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The Israeli military says Iran has launched a number of drones toward Israel. The army’s spokesman, Daniel Hagari, said it would take several hours for the aircraft to arrive. "Israel was prepared," Hagari said on Saturday night.

Tel Aviv has been on heightened alert since an airstrike last week killed two Iranian generals in Syria. Iran accused Israel of being behind the attack and vowed revenge.

In a statement by Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency, the country’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard acknowledged launching “dozens of drones and missiles towards the occupied territories and positions of the Zionist regime.” The statement did not elaborate.

The drone launch late Saturday was the first full-scale military assault by Iran on Israel, marking a significant escalation after decades of hostility that began with Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Shortly after reports of Iran's drone attack, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, said, "The malicious Zionist regime will be punished," on his X account.

Israeli aviation authorities said they were closing the country’s airspace to all flights as of 12:30 a.m. local time.

"Our defensive systems are deployed; we are ready for any scenario, both defensively and offensively. The State of Israel is strong. The IDF is strong. The public is strong". Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said in a video shared on social media.

Earlier Saturday, the Israeli military said it was canceling school and limiting public gatherings to no more than 1,000 people as a safety precaution.

The head of the US Central Command, General Erik Kurilla, has been in Israel in recent days to coordinate with Israel about the Iranian threats.

Israel has a number of layers of air defense capable of intercepting everything from long-range missiles to UAV’s and short-range rockets. 

IDF spokesperson Hagari said Israel has an “excellent air defense system” but stressed it is not 100% effective and urged the public to listen to safety announcements.

White House: US will 'support' Israel's defense against attack from Iran

The Pentagon reported that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had spoken with his Israeli counterpart “to discuss urgent regional threats ... and made clear that Israel could count on full US support to defend Israel against any attacks by Iran and its regional proxies." 

National security adviser Jake Sullivan also spoke with his counterpart to reinforce Washington's “ironclad commitment to the security of Israel”.

US President Joe Biden cut short a weekend trip to his Delaware beach home to return to the White House where he will monitor events in the Middle East.

The Netherlands plans to close its embassy in Tehran on Sunday, the Dutch foreign ministry wrote in a statement, citing the rising tension between Iran and Israel.

Meanwhile the Lufthansa Group extended its suspension of flights between Frankfurt and Tehran through until Thursday. It said its planes would avoid Iranian airspace.

Dutch airline KLM said it would not longer fly over Iran or Israel, but would continue flights to and from Tel Aviv on Israel's Mediterranean coast.

The developments follow Iran's seizure of a container ship linked to Israel. 

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Commandos from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) rappeled down from a helicopter on the vessel in the Strait of Hormuz, around 80km off the coast of the UAE.

The ship, MSC Aries, is associated with London-based Zodiac Maritime, part of Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer’s Zodiac Group.

Zodiac declined to comment and referred questions to MSC. Geneva-based MSC said 25 crew members were on board the ship, acknowledging the seizure. 

“We are working closely with the relevant authorities to ensure their wellbeing and safe return of the vessel,” MSC said. 

Iranian authorities did not immediately comment on the incident. However, the country's media has celebrated the actions of Iranian special forces against the "Zionist regime".

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The state-run IRNA news agency said the ship was being transported to Iranian waters. 

The Portugese-flagged ship was last located off Dubai heading toward the Strait of Hormuz on Friday.

It had turned off its tracking data, which has been common for Israeli-affiliated ships moving through the region, the AP news agency reported.

Video of the seizure obtained by AP shows a Soviet-era Mil Mi-17 helicopter, which both the IRGC and Iranian-backed Houthi rebels of Yemen have used in the past to conduct commando raids on ships.

A crew member can be heard in the footage saying: “Don’t come out.” 

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He then tells his colleagues to go to the ship’s bridge as Iranian commandos take positions on the ship. One commando can be seen kneeling above the others to provide them with potential cover fire.

The British military's United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations said the vessel was “seized by regional authorities” in the Gulf of Oman off the Emirati port city of Fujairah. 

It did not elaborate further.

The Middle East had braced for potential retaliation by Tehran after a suspected Israeli strike earlier this month on an Iranian consular building in Syria that killed 12 people.

A senior IRGC general who once commanded its expeditionary Quds Force was among the dead. 

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Attacks on diplomatic missions are illegal under international law, codified in the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and the 1963 Convention on Consular Relations.

For days, Iranian officials up to and including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have threatened to “slap” Israel for the Syria strike. 

In response to the seizure, Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz called on nations to list the IRGC as a terrorist organisation.

Iran “is a criminal regime that supports Hamas’ crimes and is now conducting a pirate operation in violation of international law,” Katz said. 

Israel's devastating war against Hamas in Gaza has sent long-running tensions in the region skyrocketing. 

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Tehran supports the Palestinian cause and has used its proxy forces in Lebanon and Yemen to attack Israel. 

Iran since 2019 has engaged in a series of ship seizures and attacks amid ongoing tensions with the West over its rapidly advancing nuclear programme.

Iran in the past largely avoided directly attacking Israel, despite it carrying out the targeted killing of nuclear scientists and sabotage campaigns against Iran's atomic sites. Iran has targeted Israeli or Jewish-linked sites through proxy forces. 

The Gulf of Oman is near the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which a fifth of all globally traded oil passes. 

Fujairah, on the United Arab Emirates’ eastern coast, is the main port in the region for ships to take on new oil cargo, pick up supplies or trade out crew.

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Since 2019, the waters off Fujairah have seen a series of explosions and hijackings. The US Navy blamed Iran for limpet mine attacks on vessels that damaged tankers.

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