Seven US prisoners found safe after captors flee

 

Seven American prisoners were found safe and well in Iraq yesterday after their captors apparently fled from US marines advancing on Saddam Hussein's crumbling northern bastion of Tikrit.

Officials said the group, comprising all seven people on the US list of prisoners in the Iraqi war so far, included five members of an ambushed army convoy and two pilots of a downed Apache attack helicopter.

The prisoners were found near Samarra, about 40 miles north of Baghdad on the Tikrit road and were flown to a US air base 60 miles south of Baghdad, and from there to Kuwait.

Three were given medical treatment there and then all seven were flown to an undisclosed destination.

The Pentagon confirmed that they included the sole woman captive, Spc Shoshana Johnson.

Gen Tommy Franks told Fox television: "The tip came from an Iraqi, and I believe our guys picked them up on the road."

"The guards evidently were deserted by their officers, and the guards themselves brought the prisoners of war to the marines," said Lieut Col Nick Morano at Marine Corps headquarters south-east of Baghdad.

Spc Johnson (30), of El Paso, Texas, was among five members of a 15-member army military maintenance company taken on March 23rd when their convoy made a wrong turn in southern Iraq and was ambushed by Iraqi forces. They were shown on Iraqi television shortly after their capture.

Also in that company was PFC Jessica Lynch, rescued from a Nassiriya hospital by US special forces on April 1st and now recovering from her wounds in a hospital in Washington.

Meanwhile, six US soldiers were wounded, at least two of them seriously, when an Iraqi paramilitary hurled a hand grenade at them as they removed mortars from a weapons cache south of Baghdad.

Soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division were carrying mortars into the courtyard of a building in Mahmudiya, 15 miles south of Baghdad when a car pulled up from behind the crowd, and a man jumped out and tossed a hand grenade at the troops.

Armed men besieged the home of a Shia Muslim spiritual leader in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf yesterday, giving him until today to leave the country or face attack, aides to the cleric said.

It was not immediately clear whether Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who is in his 70s, was inside the house.

Kuwait-based Ayatollah Abulqasim Dibaji said the house was surrounded by members of Jimaat-e-Sadr-Thani, a shadowy group led by Moqtada Sadr, the 22-year-old son of a late spiritual leader in Iraq. "Moqtada wants to take total control of the holy sites in Iraq," he said.

Associates of Moqtada said he had no link with the siege or the killing on Thursday in the city's main shrine of senior cleric Abdul Majid al-Khoei, just returned from exile.