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Six Churches In Iraq Bombed

BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- Car bombs exploded outside at least six Christian churches in Iraq Sunday, killing at least three people and wounding many more in an apparently coordinated attack timed to coincide with evening prayers.

"We are expecting a huge number of casualties," an Interior Ministry source told Reuters. He said there had been four blasts at churches in Baghdad and two in Mosul. At least two of the Baghdad blasts were suicide car bomb attacks, he said.

The attacks were the first to target Christian churches during the 15-month insurgency.

Iraqis said the blasts, which scattered chunks of hot metal and shattered stained glass windows, said they feared the attacks were designed to stir tensions among Iraq's diverse religious communities.

"These operations are aimed at creating strife between Christians, Shi'ites, Sunnis and others, nothing more, nothing less," said Omar Hussein, 25, a metalworker near the scene of a blast at the Armenian church in central Baghdad.

Another blast happened about 15 minutes later outside an Assyrian church in the same area, mangling cars and sending a loud boom reverberating across the neighborhood. Medics dragged a wounded man from a car, his arm almost torn off by the blast.

An ambulance driver told Reuters that two people were killed in the explosion at the Assyrian church and several wounded.

Police said at least one person was killed in one of the Mosul blasts.

There are about 800,000 Christians in Iraq, most of them in Baghdad. There have been a string of attacks in recent weeks on alcohol sellers throughout Iraq, the majority of whom are Christians of either the Assyrian, Chaldean or Armenian denominations.

BOMBINGS IN MOSUL

Earlier Sunday, a suicide car bomber blew up his vehicle outside a police station in Mosul, killing at least five people and wounding 53.

Witnesses said the Toyota Landcruiser raced toward a police checkpoint as guards screamed at the driver to stop. When he didn't, they opened fire, killing him. But the car plowed on and detonated about 20 meters (60 feet) from the police station.

"I was waiting for a taxi when the car approached at high speed," said witness Younis al-Hadidi, 32. "It blew up in the middle of everyone."

Police said four of the five killed were police officers and the wounded were both civilians and police. Doctors said many of the wounded were badly hurt and the death toll could rise.

Another suicide car bomb blast outside a U.S. base in Mosul last week killed four civilians and wounded a dozen.

Sunday's bombings came four days after an attack outside a police recruiting center in Baquba, north of Baghdad, killed 70 people. Police are frequently targeted by militants who regarded them as collaborators with U.S. forces.

The attacks followed another night of clashes between U.S. forces and guerrillas in the rebellious city of Falluja, west of Baghdad, in which at least 10 Iraqis died and 35 were wounded, a doctor at the main hospital said.

FATE OF HOSTAGES UNCLEAR

There were conflicting reports over the fate of three Indians, three Kenyans and an Egyptian taken hostage in Iraq this month.

In Nairobi, Kenyan Foreign Minister Chirau Ali Mwakwere had told a news conference that guerrillas had released the seven hostages. But the Kuwaiti firm employing the men and an Iraqi mediator who has been negotiating their release said they were still in captivity.

Scores of hostages from two dozen countries have been seized by kidnappers in the last four months. Most have been freed but several have been executed -- at least four by beheading.

Saturday, militants led by Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi said they had kidnapped two Turkish truck drivers and would behead them in 48 hours unless their Turkish employer quit the country.

Iraqi commandos freed a Lebanese hostage Sunday, a Lebanese Foreign Ministry source said, but there was no word on a fellow countryman snatched along with a Syrian driver on Friday.


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