14 dead as Iraqi militants target Catholic church

At least seven hostages and seven members of the Iraqi security forces were killed when Islamic militants took 120 people hostage in a Catholic church. A four-hour siege was ended when security forces stormed the church in Baghdad while the terrorists were still on the telephone to the authorities demanding the release of prisoners.

Five or more of the militants, who are believed to be linked to an al-Qa'ida group based in Iraq, were killed when security forces ended the stand-off. The siege had started when the terrorists ran into the church after attacking the Iraqi stock exchange with guns and grenades. An estimated 30 hostages, including a priest and a nun, were injured. Worshippers had been listening to a Bible reading when the militants took over the church.

Marzina Matti Yalda was inside when the attack started and said: "As we went outside the hall to see what was happening, gunmen stormed the main gate and they started to shoot at us. Many people fell down, including a priest, while some of us ran inside and took shelter in a locked room as we waited for the security forces to arrive."

Iraqi Christians have been frequent targets for insurgents and many have fled the country since 2003. There are now 870,000 Christians, most of them Catholics, living in Iraq today.

Lieutenant-Colonel Eric Bloom, of the US Army, said at the militants wore suicide vests and that least 19 people died, but some Iraqi sources put the death toll at up to 37. Baghdad military spokesman Major-General Qassim al-Moussawi said security forces killed eight attackers.

A senior Iraqi intelligence official said the insurgents had demanded the release of women prisoners linked to al-Qa'ida in Iraq, including an Egyptian woman. Al-Baghdadia 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-Qa'ida members held in Iraq and Egypt. The caller said the attackers belonged to the Islamic State of Iraq.

A message later posted on the group's website claimed it would "exterminate Iraqi Christians" if Muslim women were not freed within 48 hours from ministries and churches run by the Christian Coptic church in Egypt.

Our Lady of Salvation, one of Baghdad's largest churches, was one of five churches in Baghdad and Mosul hit in co-ordinated attacks in August 2004 in which 12 people were killed.

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