37 killed in Baghdad church hostage drama
Baghdad, November 1, 2010
As many as 37 people were killed on Sunday when police stormed a Baghdad church where gunmen were holding dozens of parishioners hostage, threatening to kill them if Al Qaeda prisoners were not released.
The US military said between seven and 10 hostages and seven members of the Iraqi security forces, as well as five to seven attackers, were killed in the rescue operation.
However, an Iraqi interior ministry official later put the toll at 37.
Witnesses reported seeing many bodies inside the church after the gunmen wearing suicide vests threw grenades or blew themselves up as Iraqi forces stormed the building.
The insurgents laid siege to one of Baghdad's biggest churches as more than 100 parishioners attended Sunday mass in a central district near the heavily fortified Green Zone, home to embassies and the Iraqi government.
US military officials watched the rescue operation from cameras in hovering helicopters.
Lieutenant Colonel Eric Bloom, a US military spokesman in Baghdad, said three militants detonated suicide vests as Iraq forces entered the church. He said a total of 120 hostages were held by the assailants, adding that 30 people were wounded.
Al Qaeda's Iraqi affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq, claimed responsibility for the attack on "the dirty place of the infidel which Iraqi Christians have long used as a base to fight Islam".
Violence has fallen sharply in Iraq since the height of sectarian bloodshed in 2006-07 but attacks by Sunni insurgents linked to al Qaeda and Shi'ite militia continue daily.
The failure of Iraqi leaders to agree on a new government almost eight months after an inconclusive election has stoked tensions just as US forces cut back their presence and end combat operations ahead of a full withdrawal next year.
Iraqi security officials said they had been warned of possible attacks against large gatherings, especially churches.
"We expect attacks will continue and increase in the coming days," said Lieutenant General Hussein Kamal, Iraq's deputy interior minister. - Reuters and other sources