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Journalist: POWs' freedom brings tears of joy

Johnson
Former prisoner of war Army Spc. Shoshana Johnson is escorted Sunday to a C-130 transport plane at an air base south of Baghdad.

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(CNN) -- Seven U.S. troops handed over by Iraqis were released to a U.S. Marine unit Sunday north of Baghdad.

The former captives arrived by helicopter at a base about 65 miles south of the Iraqi capital, where they were then flown to Kuwait City.

Embedded journalist Matthew Fisher of Canada's National Post newspaper spoke Sunday with CNN's Heidi Collins about the recovery of the troops near Samarra and other developments in the battle in Tikrit, deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's hometown.

FISHER: [The troops] were just handed over. It was completely unexpected. The Marines were on a separate mission [in] the big final phase of the war, [which] ... is taking place for Tikrit right now.

I'm with about 300 armored vehicles that are just entering the town of Tikrit at this exact moment. Delta Company was one of those groups, but they were held back at first to guard access from roads on the side.

They went to the town of Samarra, [which is] a holy city ... and by accident, a man just approached them in the street and said, "This is where [the American POWS] are." There was no fight whatsoever.

... According to Brig. Gen. John Kelly, ... the man guarding them said, "We knew you were 160 kilometers away so we thought we had a few more days to hold them here."

The Marines [had] pushed overnight. They went all night, and there was this huge jump forward for this surprise attack, and that is how they surprised the prisoners, or I presume they would have been moved farther north into the last little pieces of land still controlled by forces loyal to Saddam Hussein.

COLLINS: Now, Matthew, you said this was a policeman. Is that right?

FISHER: Yes, I was told by one of the Marines that it was a policeman who approached them and said, "You have come for the prisoners of war." He believed they were there for the prisoners of war. ... That's not why they were there. It was completely unexpected. Of course, they took immediate advantage of their good fortune.

... First aid and primary medical care [was given] to the two wounded. The others were described as skinny, [and] they've grown beards during their captivity. When they were released, of course, they were extremely happy. They went to a helicopter station -- a temporary one that had been set up a few kilometers, a few miles south of where they were taken or rescued -- and then they were flown out on Army Medivac helicopters.

COLLINS: Any idea how long all of that took? It sounds like it was lightning speed.

FISHER: They were there on another mission, and literally the prisoners were 50 or 100 yards away. I don't know exactly. Awfully close. They didn't have to drive anywhere. It was at a traffic circle by ... the damming part of the Tigris River. They immediately went and got the prisoners.

Williams and Young
Two U.S. Army Apache helicopter pilots -- Chief Warrant Officers David S. Williams, center, and Ronald D. Young Jr. -- are taken to a waiting plane.

There was, as I said, tears of joy. The prisoners were extremely happy. They got them a change of clothes. One of [the Marines] said, "We didn't want to shame them by having [them] wear these sort of dilapidated pajama-like things they had on." They put them in Marine clothing.

There were a few jokes because these are all Marines and the people they're clothing are Army. They were whisked away, and it was an Army helicopter that took them south. I don't know where they went.

COLLINS: Finally, I want to ask you Matthew. What happened then with the rest of D Company? Did this [recovery] then become their mission, and then did they all stay?

FISHER: No. The mission that is taking place is too important. And what happened was they ... heard over the radio ... [to] "get north as fast as you can." And to "please deal with this as fast as you can."

They are now all literally in the attack, and their vehicles have left, and the battle for Tikrit has begun, with about 250 armored vehicles entering the town and at the same time other forces are taking the airport.

At this time, they expect to fight; they expect at least fighters in the town. They killed five tanks moving. Most of the tanks killed so far in the war were abandoned. These tanks [Sunday] morning were moving and were manned a couple of kilometers from where I'm standing in Tikrit.

... Marines [also] ran into a group of Iraqi infantry [Sunday]. There was a fierce firefight, and they killed at least 15 of them. All this information is according to Brig. Gen. John Kelly, the commander of Task Force Tripoli to Tikrit. That is the name being given to what the Marines hope is the last battle in Iraq. It may or may not be, of course, a major one, but no one has surrendered yet, and it looks at this moment as if it's a big battle.

They have been softening targets all day [Sunday] with Cobra attack helicopters. In the last few minutes, a great number of helicopters have gone into the city.

As I speak, some Cobras that have apparently fired their weapons are coming out. Two are moving away from the town; several more are moving into the town. The battle for Tikrit has begun. And almost all of the major forces are now moving into the town.


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