The Iraqi government says at least 52 hostages and police died in an operation by security forces to rescue worshippers held in a Catholic church in Baghdad.
Nearly 70 were wounded. The operation began after gunmen laid siege to “Our Lady of Salvation” in the centre of the Iraqi capital. About 100 people were attending Sunday evening Mass.
Witnesses have been describing what happened, saying the gunmen opened fire outside before storming into the church, where they killed the priest and started beating people.
There had been a stand-off as security forces surrounded the building and helicopters hovered overhead.
The government has defended its handling of the rescue operation.
“We took the decision to launch an offensive using ground forces as well as from the air because it was impossible to wait,” said Iraqi Defence Minister Abdul-Qadr Al-Obeidi. “The terrorists were planning to kill a large number of our brothers, the Christians who were at the Mass.”
Several of the attackers also died in the fighting. Some reports said they were not Iraqis, but foreign Arabs. Al Qaeda’s Iraqi wing, the Islamic State of Iraq, has said it was behind the attack. It was reportedly demanding the release of prisoners in Iraq and Egypt.
Many Iraqi churches have been bombed since the US-led invasion, and thousands of Christians have left the country.