x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Hostage siege sees more than 20 killed at Iraq government building

Gunmen stormed the provincial council building in Tikrit, throwing grenades and using suicide bombers and taking an unnamed number of hostages, and are now surrounded by security forces.

BAGHDAD // A hostage siege at a local government building in the city of Tikrit, Iraq has see the number of dead rise to more than 20 by early this evening, more than three hours after gunmen wearing military uniforms and suicide bomb belts stormed the building, using car bombs and grenades.

A provincial official said the gunmen, who wore security forces' uniforms, identified themselves as Iraqi soldiers at a security checkpoint outside the government compound but opened fire on guards when they were told they needed to be searched, throwing hand grenades, before they managed to storm inside the building.

"When security forces tried to intervene when they reached the entrance, a parked car bomb exploded. It was a powerful explosion and as a result, some of the security forces were killed," the official said.

"Two suicide bombers detonated themselves inside the provincial building, while other gunmen managed to seize members of the provincial council as hostages."

A spokesman for the governor, Ali Abdul Rihman, said: "The gunmen were armed with grenades, and began their raid by firing at random at a reception room. Then they opened fire inside."

Special police forces have entered the building and engaged with the gunmen, who were holding hostages on the second floor of the building, the official said. Police have imposed a curfew to prevent all road and pedestrian traffic in Tikrit.

A senior intelligence official in Baghdad said the gunmen were holding some hostages inside the building but did not know how many. He blamed al-Qaida in Iraq for the attack.

Salahuddin government spokesman Ali al Saleh said: "The goal of the attackers was apparently to take hostages." At least some officials and government employees escaped before they the gunmen could capture them, he said.

The Salahuddin province media adviser, Mohammed al Asi, said that as of late this afternoon 65 people have been wounded.

The provincial governor, Ahmed Abdullah, said three politicians who were inside the Tikrit headquarters when the assault began are missing, indicating they may be among the hostages. "We've lost contact with three provincial council members who were inside the building when the attack took place," Mr Abdullah said in a telephone interview from Amman, Jordan, where he was receiving updates on the assault via mobile phone.

He described a fierce shootout between at least eight gunmen, who have overtaken the council headquarters' second floor, and Iraqi security forces who surrounded the building. He said the attackers were hurling grenades at Iraqi forces.

Among the dead was journalist Sabah al Bazi, a correspondent for the Al Arabiya satellite TV channel in Dubai and a freelancer for CNN, according to the two news outlets.

The provincial council meets at the headquarters every Tuesday, but a spokesman for the governor, Ali Abdul Rihman, said local politicians called off their discussion early because there was little on their agenda. As a result, he said, most of the politicians had already left the headquarters when the assault began.

Tikrit, 130 kilometers) north of Baghdad, is the hometown of the former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Salahuddin province, home to Saddam's family, continues to suffer frequent attacks by suspected Sunni Islamist insurgents opposed to the Shi'ite-led authorities in Baghdad. Tikrit is primarily Sunni.