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Death Toll Rises to 58 in Iraq Church Standoff
By Mohammed Tawfeeq

Baghdad, Iraq (CNN) -- The death toll from a hostage standoff at a Catholic church in Baghdad has risen to 58, police officials with the Iraqi Interior Ministry said Monday.

Seventy-five others were wounded in the attack by armed gunmen Sunday, the officials said, adding that most of the casualties were women and children. Two priests were also among the dead as well as 17 security officers and five gunmen.

The hours-long standoff ended Sunday after Iraqi security forces stormed the Sayidat al-Nejat church. Eight suspects were arrested.

"All the marks point out that this incident carries the fingerprints of al Qaeda," Iraqi Defense Minister Abdul Qader Obeidi said on state television Sunday.

He said that most of the hostages were killed or wounded when the kidnappers set off explosives inside the church.

At least two of the attackers were wearing explosive vests, which they detonated just minutes before security forces raided the church, the police officials said.

The Islamic State of Iraq later claimed responsibility for the attack through a statement posted on a radical Islamic website. The umbrella group includes a number of Sunni extremist organizations and has ties to al Qaeda in Iraq.

"The Mujahedeens raided a filthy nest of the nests of polytheism, which has been long taken by the Christians of Iraq as a headquarter for a war against the religion of Islam and they were able by the grace of God and His glory to capture those were gathered in and to take full control of all its entrances," the group said on the website.

Pope Benedict XVI said Monday that he was praying "for the victims of this absurd violence -- all the more ferocious in that it hit defenseless people gathered in the house of the Lord, which is home to reconciliation and love."

Survivors of the ordeal said they were about to begin Sunday night services when the gunmen entered the church, according to Martin Chulov, a journalist for the U.K.-based Guardian newspaper who was on the scene. A priest ushered the congregants into a backroom, Chulov reported that survivors said.

At one point, one of the gunmen entered the room and threw an unidentified explosive device inside, causing casualties, Chulov said.

The U.S. military spokesman said that as many as 120 people were taken hostage.

The gunmen seized the hostages after attacking the Baghdad Stock Market in the central part of the Iraqi capital earlier Sunday, police said. Four armed men entered the nearby Sayidat al-Nejat church after clashing with Iraqi security forces trying to repel the stock market attack.

Iraq's Interior Ministry told CNN that gunmen attacked the stock market to distract Iraqi security forces who were outside the church to protect it.

The gunmen were demanding that the Iraqi government release a number of detainees and prisoners inside Iraqi prisons, saying the Christian hostages would be freed in return, according to the police officials. Iraq's defense minister later said on state television that the kidnappers had demanded the release of a number of prisoners in both Iraq and Egypt.

Iraqi security forces sealed off the area surrounding the church, the officials said, and buildings were evacuated of civilians as a precautionary measure. At least 13 hostages, including two children, managed to escape ahead of the rescue operation, police said.

The Iraqi authorities ordered the attackers to release the hostages and to turn themselves in, warning that they would storm the church if they do not comply. A few hours passed quietly as military units took up positions outside the church, including several American units, said Chulov.

"Then all hell broke loose," he said. A firefight erupted, and Chulov said he heard three to four large explosions. Later, he saw about 20 ambulances race away from the scene.

The American military spokesman minimized the role that U.S. troops played in the operation.

"The U.S. only provided UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] support with video imagery. As always we have advisers with the ISF [Iraqi security forces] command teams," Bloom said.

While the U.S. combat mission in Iraq officially ended earlier this year, some 50,000 American troops are expected to remain in the country until the end of 2011 to train, assist and advise Iraqi troops.

CNN's Hada Messia contributed to this report.


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