Gunmen wearing military uniforms and suicide bomb belts stormed a local government headquarters in northern Iraq on Tuesday in an attempt to take hostages that killed at least 53 people, an Iraqi health official told Reuters. Nearly 100 others have been wounded.
Fifteen of the hostages were killed execution-style before their captors blew themselves up, a government official told the Associated Press.
Three lawmakers who were inside the Salahuddin provincial council building in Tikrit when the gunmen overran the compound are missing, said provincial governor Ahmed Abdullah. He said the lawmakers were not answering their mobile phones and could not immediately be located -- indicating they may be held hostage.
"We've lost contact with three provincial council members who were inside the building when the attack took place," 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 Al-Arabiya satellite TV channel and a freelancer for CNN, according to the two news outlets.
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 Qaeda in Iraq for the attack.
"The goal of the attackers was apparently to take hostages," Salahuddin government spokesman Ali al-Saleh said. At least some officials and government employees escaped before they the gunmen could capture them, he said.
Tikrit is 80 miles north of Baghdad.
Authorities said the attackers blew up a car outside the council headquarters to create a diversion before launching their raid. Wearing military uniforms -- including one with a high rank -- the gunmen 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.
The provincial council meets at the headquarters every Tuesday, but a spokesman for the governor, Ali Abdul Rihman, said local lawmakers called off their discussion early because there was little on their agenda. As a result, he said, most of the lawmakers had already left the headquarters when the assault began.
"The gunmen were armed with grenades, and began their raid by firing at random at a reception room," Rihman said. "Then they opened fire inside."
Police immediately imposed a curfew to prevent all road and pedestrian traffic in Tikrit as security forces moved into the building. The senior intelligence official said forces began an operation to free any hostages about two hours after the start of the siege.
He likened the attack to a horrifying hostage raid last fall on a Catholic church in Baghdad that left 68 dead and stunned the nation. An Al Qaeda-linked group claimed responsibility for that massacre on Oct. 31, which drove thousands of Iraq's already dwindling Christian population from their homeland in fear.
Tikrit, which is Saddam Hussein's hometown, is mostly populated by Sunni Muslims and is was a hotbed for insurgents linked to Al Qaeda and anti-American extremists at the height of the Iraq war.
City policemen said U.S. troops were at the scene to assist Iraqi forces but a spokesman for the American military in Baghdad could not immediately verify that information.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.