More than 50 people are reported to have been killed as Iraqi security forces stormed a Catholic church in central Baghdad to free scores of hostages being held by gunmen.
Many hostages were among the dead, along with members of the Iraqi security forces and the attackers. More than 100 Christians were being held hostage.
The security forces stormed the Assyrian Catholic Church of Our Lady of Salvation on the evening of October 31 after a tense siege lasting several hours.
There are conflicting reports about the death toll and the number of gunmen involved. Reports speak of at least 52 people killed, mostly hostages, but including seven members of the Iraqi security forces and at least five gunmen. Dozens more of the hostages, who included many women, were wounded.
It was also unclear if the hostages were killed by the attackers or if they died during the rescue.
Initially the gunmen attacked the nearby Baghdad Stock Exchange, where they killed two guards, before entering the church, shooting the priest saying evening Mass, and taking the congregation hostage.
A Christian man who was freed from the church afterwards described the scene to journalists.
"The [gunmen] opened fire in the street before walking into the church. We were praying inside. They rounded us up and gathered all of us in a hall. They beat the [worshippers] and they held us hostage inside the hall and started to beat us," he said.
Claim Of Responsibility
The Islamic State of Iraq militant group, which is linked to Al-Qaeda in Iraq, appeared to claim responsibility for the attack on a militant website. The group said it would "exterminate Iraqi Christians" unless two women it said were being held in Coptic Christian churches in Egypt for converting or wanting to convert to Islam, were freed.
In Rome, Pope Benedict denounced what he called the "ferocious" attack on the Baghdad church and called for renewed international efforts to broker peace in the region. He termed the violence all the more absurd as it was directed against unarmed people gathered in the house of God.
Iraqi Defense Minster Abdul Qader al-Obeidi described the rescue operation as "efficient," despite the high apparent death toll among the Christians.
"Most of the people who were attending the mass were rescued and the operation was carried out with high efficiency All the attackers were killed and as I told you, there were suspects killed, too," al-Obeidi said.
"Right from the very beginning, their phone calls were fully intercepted, and we strongly believe that there were non-Iraqis people among the group. Investigations will reveal their nationalities."
The same church in Baghdad was the scene of a bomb attack in 2004, when five coordinated explosions took place at churches in Baghdad and Mosul, killing 12 people.
Iraqi security officials say they have been warned of possible fresh attacks against large gatherings, especially churches. Lieutenant General Hussein Kamal, Iraq's deputy interior minister, said there could be an increase in such attacks in the coming days.
compiled from agency reports