Iraq has arrested at least 12 suspected al-Qaeda insurgents believed to be behind a deadly Baghdad church siege a month ago, the country?s interior minister told The Associated Press on Saturday.

Interior Minister Jawad Bolani said the arrests, the first in connection to the October siege at the Our Lady of Salvation church, occurred in recent days.

He said the insurgents were behind a wide range of operations in Iraq leading up to the siege and described their arrest as a coup for security forces.

?It is a painful blow to al?Qaeda,? Mr. Bolani said.

Insurgents took about 120 people hostage during the October 31 church attack. The siege ended hours later with 68 people dead in an attack that shocked many of Iraq?s already-hardened citizens.

The attackers raided the church, located in one of Baghdad?s more affluent neighbourhoods during Sunday evening Mass. Dozens of cowering parishioners, and two priests were killed, one execution-style on the church floor, before Iraqi security forces stormed the building.

Al-Qaeda later claimed responsibility for the attack and vowed in an Internet message to continue a campaign of bloodshed against Iraq?s dwindling Christian minority.

According to Mr. Bolani, security forces also seized money and explosives during the arrests.

Mr. Bolani gave no details as to where and how the arrests took place, but an intelligence official responsible for monitoring al-Qaeda cells in Iraq, said security forces acted on a tip to make the first arrest.

From that arrest, the security forces eventually managed to round up the entire group, the official said. He put the number of people arrested at 17.

The intelligence official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.

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