52 killed, scores wounded in botched rescue

An attempt by Iraqi security forces, backed by American aerial support, to rescue hostages held inside an Iraqi church resulted in a bloodbath late on Sunday.

Iraqi forces stormed Our Lady of Salvation Catholic Cathedral after an alleged al-Qaeda group took over the church in which more than 100 worshippers had assembled for evening mass. The assailants, in uniform, entered the church after exchanging fire with security personnel at the nearby Baghdad stock exchange building in the affluent Karada district.

At least 52 people were killed and scores wounded in the fire fight.

A statement was posted on a militant Website allegedly run by the Islamic State of Iraq, of which al-Qaeda in Iraq is a part, claiming responsibility for the attack.

The attackers were apparently demanding the release of al-Qaeda prisoners in Egypt and a group of women who had converted to Islam but were allegedly being held against their will by members of the Egyptian Coptic Church.

According to an eye-witness account, the militants entered the church's prayer hall and immediately killed the priest.

According to other sources, the assailants contacted the Iraqi authorities over mobile phone and demanded the release of the prisoners and several Muslim women. However, the dialogue made no headway and security personnel soon stormed the church. Witnesses said they heard two explosions followed by gunfire. The gunmen finally assaulted with grenades and exploded their suicide vests.

Pope Benedict XVI condemned the violence which he said was “absurd” and “made more ferocious because it was directed against unarmed people gathered in the house of God”. He called for a fresh start to end the violence.

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