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Baghdad church siege ends with 52 casualties

world Updated: Nov 01, 2010 17:15 IST
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Iraqi security forces stormed a Baghdad church where militants had taken an entire congregation hostage for four hours, leaving at least 52 people dead, including a priest, Iraqi officials said on Monday.

It was not immediately clear whether the hostages died at the hands of the attackers or during the rescue late last night in an affluent neighbourhood of the capital.

The incident began when militants wearing suicide vests and armed with grenades attacked the Iraqi stock exchange yesterday before turning their attention to the nearby Our Lady of Deliverance church, one of Baghdad's main Catholic places of worship, taking about 120 Christians hostage.

Deputy Interior Minister Maj Gen Hussein Ali Kamal said 52 people were killed and 67 wounded, in the bloodbath. Officials said at least one priest and 10 policemen were among the dead. Many of the wounded were women.

A Christian member of parliament today described the Iraqi rescue operation as "not professional", saying "it was a hasty action that prompted the terrorists to kill the worshippers."

"We have no clear picture yet whether the worshippers were killed by the security forces bullets or by terrorists, but what we know is that most of them were killed when the security forces started to storm the church," Younadem Kana said.

Video footage from an American drone that was overhead during the attack showed a black plume of smoke followed by flashes from inside the building before what appears to be soldiers going in.

US forces often supply air support to Iraqi forces conducting operations on the ground, feeding them video footage of what American drones see from the air.

The casualty information was confirmed by police and officials at hospitals where the dead and wounded were taken.

There were conflicting accounts about the number of attackers involved in the assault, with Baghdad military spokesman Maj Gen Qassim al-Moussawi saying last night that security forces killed eight, while the US military said between five and seven died.

Two police officers on the scene, however, say only three attackers were killed and another seven arrested afterward.

A cryptically worded statement posted on Sunday on a militant website allegedly by the Islamic State of Iraq appeared to claim responsibility for the attack. The group, which is linked to al-Qaida in Iraq, said it would "exterminate Iraqi Christians" if Muslim women in Egypt were not freed.