US military rejects Iraqi government statistics showing July is deadliest month.
|Iraqi security forces stormed the church on Sunday to free scores of hostages held by a group of armed men [Reuters]|
Iraqi police have ended a tense stand-off with a group of armed men after they held more than 100 people hostage in a Catholic church in central Baghdad.
Officials said at least seven hostages were killed and 20 others were wounded in the rescue operation at the Sayidat al-Nejat church in the Karrada neighbourhood. Seven members of the Iraqi security forces were also killed in the incident.
The parishioners were held captive for several hours after the assailants stormed the Our Lady of Salvation church, one of Baghdad’s biggest churches, during Sunday mass.
“We have released the hostages but, unfortunately, we regret the deaths of seven of them, while another 20 were wounded,” said an interior ministry official.
Major-General Qassim al-Moussawi, a Baghdad security spokesman, told Reuters news agency on Sunday that the operation “has finished successfully”.
Sunday’s attack began with at least one loud explosion followed by bursts of gunfire. Streets around the Assyrian Catholic church were quickly cordoned off.
Earlier the assailants wearing suicide vests killed two guards who tried to stop them from raiding the stock exchange building.
After battling security forces at the stock exchange, the men fled to the nearby church, where they held the building’s construction and cleaning crew hostage inside.
Abdullah Hermiz, the head of Christian Endowment, told The Associated Press that only part of the building was under construction and that Sunday services were being held as usual in another part of the church.
“When they were about to leave and heard the shooting outside and because of the scary situation, some ran outside the church while others remained inside,” he added.
Al Jazeera’s Rawya Rageh reporting from Baghdad citing Iraqi police said eight suspects have been arrested in relation to the attack.
She also said that according to the US military the attackers were al-Qaeda operatives, based on their “tactics, techniques and procedures”.
Lieutenant-Colonel Eric Bloom, a US army spokesman, said about 100 hostages had been in the church when the attackers came in, but some 19 of them managed to escape.
“They [Iraqi forces] went into the church and rescued the hostages,” added Bloom. “They have control of the church.”
He said US forces provided air support but did not have soldiers on the ground going into the church.
Bloom later told Al Jazeera that the incident was a “robbery gone wrong”.
“We’ve seen them resort to robbery to get financed. It has been very challenging for them to get outside financing, so they are resorting to small, petty crimes to try to finance themselves.”
Al-Baghdadiya television station said it had received a phone call from someone claiming to be one of the attackers, who demanded the release of all al-Qaeda prisoners in Iraq and Egypt.
The caller said the attackers belonged to the Islamic State of Iraq, an al-Qaeda umbrella group in Iraq.
The Chaldean bishop of Baghdad said earlier on Sunday that the attackers were demanding the release of detainees held in Iraq and Egypt and that two priests were among the hostages.
“What we know is that a number of worshippers and two priests are being held hostage at the church by terrorists,” Bishop Shlimoune Wardouni said.
“They are demanding the release of terrorists held in Iraq and Egypt,” he added.