BAGHDAD (AFP) – US and Iraqi forces stormed a Baghdad church to free dozens of hostages in a drama that officials said left seven Christians dead and for which an Al-Qaeda group claimed responsibility.
All eight gunmen who raided the church were also killed when US and Iraqi forces mounted a joint operation to rescue worshippers held in the Sayidat al-Nejat church in central Baghdad, officials said.
The gunmen attacked during evening mass after killing two guards at the nearby headquarters of the Baghdad stock exchange.
"We released the hostages but unfortunately seven of them were killed and 20 of them wounded," an interior ministry official told AFP.
A defence ministry official said 13 people had been hurt in the rescue operation and that the gunmen had been holding 40 hostages.
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."
Officials said that nine gunmen had raided the church in the Karrada neighbourhood but one had blown himself up with a suicide belt as police made a first attempt to enter.
"We killed the eight terrorists inside the church," an Iraqi soldier said.
Officials refused to speak about casualties among security forces.
"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.
The Chaldean bishop of Baghdad, Bishop Shlimoune Wardouni, earlier told AFP that the gunmen were demanding the release of detainees held in Iraq and Egypt.
The SITE monitoring group said Monday that Al-Qaeda group The Islamic State of Iraq claimed its fighters had captured the Christians in Baghdad and also gave the Coptic church in Egypt a 48-hour deadline to release alleged female captives.
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 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 jihadists 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 jihadists 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 hostage-taking.
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 been frequently 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.