BAGHDAD — Islamic militants held about 120 Iraqi Christians hostage for nearly four hours in a church Sunday before security forces stormed the building and freed them, ending a standoff that left at least 19 people dead, U.S. and Iraqi officials said.
Security officials said the militants, who were allegedly linked to al-Qaida in Iraq, were demanding the release of imprisoned female insurgents when security forces stormed the building.
The standoff began at dusk when the militants attacked the nearby Iraqi stock exchange, officials said. Police then chased the insurgents toward Our Lady of Deliverance church — one of Baghdad's main Catholic places of worship.
Worshippers inside were listening to a Bible reading when the gunmen burst in, said parishioner Marzina Matti Yalda. "As we went outside the hall to see what was happening ... they started to shoot at us," Yalda said.
U.S. Army spokesman Lt. Col. Eric Bloom said at least 19 people were killed — seven hostages, seven Iraqi security troops and five militants. He said the assailants were wearing suicide vests and armed with grenades. As many as 30 people were wounded, including a priest and a nun, he said.
Iraqi military officials said the death toll was at least nine, while police and medical officials put it as high as 37. The figures could not be immediately reconciled.
There were also conflicting reports about the militants' fate. An Iraqi police official put the number of insurgents at 10 and said all were captured. Baghdad military spokesman Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi said security forces killed eight attackers while U.S. military said between five and seven attackers died.
Iraqi Defense Minister Abdul-Qadir al-Obeidi said "the terrorists were planning to murder the highest number of hostages."
Iraqi Christians, who have been frequent targets for Sunni insurgents, have left in droves since the 2003 U.S.-led war. Some 1.25 million Christians, 80 percent of them Catholic, used to live in Iraq. There are an estimated 870,000 left today.