BAGHDAD - SEVEN Christians were killed on Sunday and at least 13 wounded in a rescue operation involving US and Iraqi forces to end a hostage drama at a church in the Iraqi capital, officials said.

All eight gunmen were also killed when US and Iraqi forces mounted a joint operation to rescue worshippers held hostage in the Sayidat al-Nejat church in the Karrada neighbourhood. The gunmen had stormed the church during evening mass after killing two guards at the nearby headquarters of the Baghdad stock exchange.

'We released the hostages but unfortunately seven of them were killed and 20 of them wounded,' an interior ministry official told AFP. A defence ministry official said 13 were hurt in the rescue operation and that the gunmen had been holding 40 hostages.

One of the freed hostages, an 18-year-old man, said that the first thing the gunmen did when they entered the church was to shoot the priest. 'The entered the church with their weapons, wearing military uniforms. They came into the prayer hall, and immediately killed the priest,' said the young man who did declined to give his name.

All the hostages had been huddled into the main prayer hall when the gunbattles began with security forces, he said. 'We heard a lot of gunfire and explosions, and some people were hurt from falling windows, doors and debris,' he added.

Officials said that nine gunmen had stormed the church in central Baghdad but one of them blew himself up by activating a suicide belt he was wearing earlier in the evening when police made a first attempt to enter the church.

'We killed the eight terrorists inside the church,' an Iraqi soldier said. Officials refused to speak about casualties among security forces.

7 die in Iraq hostage drama