BAGHDAD: Fifty-two hostages and police were killed on Sunday when security forces raided a Baghdad church to free more than 100 Iraqi Catholics held by al Qaeda-linked gunmen, a deputy interior minister said.
Lieutenant General Hussein Kamal said on Monday that 67 people were wounded during the raid of the church in central Baghdad by gunmen demanding the release of al Qaeda prisoners in Iraq and Egypt. The toll only included hostages and police, not attackers.
Earlier on Monday, an interior ministry official said that "the latest toll is that 37 of the hostages were killed and 56 wounded," adding that seven security force members were killed and 15 wounded. He did not specify if any Americans were among the dead.
Five attackers were killed and eight arrested, he said, adding there had been more than 100 worshippers at the Sayidat al-Nejat Catholic cathedral in central Baghdad when the hostage-takers stormed in.
The gunmen had attacked during evening mass after killing two guards at the nearby headquarters of the Baghdad stock exchange.
At least one of the deaths came before the rescue operation: one of the freed hostages, an 18-year-old man, said the first thing the gunmen did when they entered the church was to shoot the priest.
"They entered the church with their weapons, wearing military uniforms. They came into the prayer hall, and immediately killed the priest," he said, declining to give his name.
All the hostages had been huddled into the main prayer hall when the gunbattles began with security forces, he said.
"We heard a lot of gunfire and explosions, and some people were hurt from falling windows, doors and debris."
The Chaldean bishop of Baghdad, Bishop Shlimoune Wardouni, said that two priests had been killed, and one shot in the kidney.
"It's a great sorrow, because this was an inhuman act. Even animals are not doing this to each other," Wardouni said.
Officials had said that at least one of the gunmen who raided the cathedral in the Karrada neighbourhood had blown himself up with a suicide belt as police made a first attempt to enter.
"We came here to help the police and army free the hostages, and we released them with the help of the Americans," a member of Iraq's anti-terrorist unit told AFP.
Wardouni said earlier that the gunmen were demanding the release of detainees held in Iraq and Egypt.
The Site monitoring group said Monday that the Islamic State of Iraq, the local branch of al Qaeda, had claimed the Baghdad attack, saying its fighters had captured the Christians and also gave the Coptic Church in Egypt a 48-hour deadline to release women it said were being held captive by the Christians.
It said an "angry group of mujahedeen from among the supporters of Allah raided one of the filthy dens of idolatry that was always used by the Christians of Iraq as a headquarters to fight the religion of Islam and to support those who fight that religion," Site said.
The group in a statement posted on jihadist websites said it was giving the Coptic Christian Church in Egypt 48 hours to release Muslim women "imprisoned in... the monasteries of disbelief and the churches of idolatry in Egypt."
Site said the threat comes amid calls by militants and Al-Qaeda's media arm for Muslims to take action against the Egyptian Coptic church over the alleged imprisonment of two women, both wives of Coptic priests.
It said militants believe one of the women had converted to Islam and was then imprisoned in a church, while the second had allegedly wanted to convert to Islam and suffered the same fate.
The Vatican, Italy and France were among the first to condemn the hostage-taking in Baghdad.
Around 800,000 Christians lived in Iraq in 2003 but their number has since shrunk to 550,000 as members of the community have fled abroad, according to Christian leaders.
Iraqi Christians have frequently been the target of violence, including murder and abductions. Hundreds have been killed and several churches attacked since the US-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Violence has abated in Iraq since its peak in 2006-2007, but deadly bombings, gunfights and kidnappings are still routine.
The US military officially ended combat operations in Iraq at the end of August, but 50,000 troops still remain in the country.
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