Baghdad: Gunmen have taken around 40 worshippers hostage in a Baghdad church on Sunday and Iraqi forces are preparing to launch a rescue operation to free them, an interior ministry official said.
The gunmen stormed the church and seized the worshippers after shooting dead two guards at the Iraqi capital`s stock exchange in Baghdad`s Karrada neighbourhood, a bishop and officials said.
The Vatican has called for a swift resolution to the hostage crisis, a spokesman said.
"Helicopters are on the scene and our forces are getting ready to try to raid the church," an interior ministry official told AFP.
A police captain on the scene told an AFP reporter that "nine gunmen stormed the church, but one detonated his suicide belt and died when security forces tried to enter the church."
The interior ministry official said that around 40 hostages were being held inside the Sayidat al-Nejat church.
"According to my information, witnesses on the scene said there were 40 hostages," he said.
The Chaldean bishop of Baghdad earlier told AFP that the gunmen were demanding the release of detainees held in Iraq and Egypt and that two priests were among the hostages.
"What we know is that a number of worshippers and two priests are being held hostage at the church by terrorists," Bishop Shlimoune Wardouni said.
"They are demanding the release of terrorists held in Iraq and Egypt."
Two guards at the stock exchange were killed in clashes with the gunmen trying to battle their way into the building earlier on Sunday, an interior ministry official said earlier.
"Four gunmen tried to force their way into the Baghdad stock exchange. Clashes erupted when the guards tried to stop them, and two guards were killed," the official said.
He said the attackers detonated a bomb in a car parked close wounding four civilians and escaped, fleeing to the Sayidat al-Nejat church, which was among six targeted by deadly car bombings on August 1, 2004.
An AFP reporter said police and soldiers threw a security cordon around the area and were stopping cars from entering.
Helicopters hovered overhead and sporadic gunfire could be heard, the reporter said.
Baghdad security spokesman Major General Qassim Atta said police had surrounded the church.
Residents of the Karrada district where the drama unfolded said they heard a large explosion and gunfire.
Violence has abated in Iraq since its peak in 2006-2007, but deadly bombings, gunfights and kidnappings are still routine.