"SOUTH OF BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- U.S. Marines advancing on Tikrit -- the last major Iraqi city not under coalition control -- freed seven U.S. prisoners of war Sunday before racing to the front.
The POWs were recovered by Marines who had been sent into Samarra to keep traffic from interfering with an armored column approaching the battle, Brig. Gen. John Kelly told Matthew Fisher, a reporter with Canada's National Post newspaper. Samarra is about 75 miles north of Baghdad.
An Iraqi policeman approached the Marines and asked if they had come for the prisoners. He led the Marines to a nearby building, Fisher reported, where they found the seven Americans guarded by at least one Iraqi soldier.
The Marines surrounded the prisoners to assure them they wouldn't be abandoned and gave them fresh clothes, Fisher said. They were given first aid and then whisked away on Army helicopters to a coalition air base 65 miles south of Baghdad.
U.S. Central Command identified the freed POWs as Spc. Joseph Hudson, Sgt. James Riley, Spc. Shoshana Johnson, Spc. Edgar Hernandez and Pfc. Patrick Miller -- members of a convoy from the U.S. Army's 507th Maintenance Company that was ambushed March 23 near Nasiriya -- and Chief Warrant Officers Ronald Young Jr. and David S. Williams, pilots who were captured March 24 after their Apache helicopter gunship went down south of Baghdad.
CNN's Bob Franken, who was at the coalition base, said all seven were able to walk on their own, but two appeared to be more seriously injured and limped from their helicopter to an ambulance. The other five ran as they got off the helicopter, Franken said.
They were quickly transferred to a C-130 transport plane and flown to Kuwait City, where they were checked out at a military hospital. Three were treated for minor injuries, and the other four did not require treatment, said Lt. Col. Ruth Lee.
All seven, officials said, were released from the hospital and taken to an undisclosed location.
President Bush said, "It's a great way to start a morning -- that seven Americans are going to be home soon in the arms of their loved ones."
Bush, returning to the White House from a weekend at Camp David, Maryland, said the United States would continue to search and pray for remaining missing troops.
Families of the seven had already told CNN that their loved ones had been freed. Before receiving official word from the U.S. military, some family members said they recognized their relatives in CNN's video of the soldiers' arrival at the coalition air base.
Young's parents said they recognized their son on TV. A Pentagon representative gave them official confirmation later at their Lithia Springs, Georgia, home.
"I'm ecstatic," Ronald Young Sr. said.
"The main thing to me is knowing he's all right," Young said. "It's a relief. You just don't know how much it is. It's almost like Christmas, New Year's and everything all rolled into one."
Sporadic fighting in Saddam's hometown
U.S. Marines on Sunday battled Iraqi forces in Tikrit, but the fighting has been sporadic, said Fisher of the National Post.
The forces would engage Iraqi fighters for five or 10 minutes at a time, followed by a lull of an hour or so, he said.
A "fairly large core" of about 2,500 Iraqi soldiers -- the apparent last vestige of Iraq's army and Republican Guard -- "looks as if it is prepared to fight an urban battle" with the Marines, Fisher told CNN.
"Whether Saddam Hussein is alive or not, his regime still lives in this town," he said.
A large number of Cobra attack helicopters were engaging Iraqi forces inside Tikrit, and some 250 armored vehicles from the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force had entered the north-central city as well, Fisher said. Fisher is embedded with Marines sent to Tikrit.
Gen. Tommy Franks, commander in chief of the U.S. Central Command, told CNN's Wolf Blitzer that the Iraqi army has been destroyed and "there is no regime command and control." But he said that pockets of paramilitary and foreign fighters remain throughout the country. (Full story)
Earlier Sunday, CNN's Brent Sadler, one of the few Western journalists to travel to the immediate outskirts of Tikrit, said the town looked abandoned -- with no military movement and only a few civilians on the road. Highway signs bearing the deposed Iraqi leader's image were still intact.
The CNN convoy entered the city Sunday morning but had to flee under a hail of machine gun fire after passing through a checkpoint in Tikrit. (Full story)
At least one of the vehicles was hit, and a bodyguard returned fire. Sadler said two people in the seven-vehicle convoy suffered minor injuries.
In Baghdad, U.S. troops are trying to restore order after intense fighting and subsequent looting.
Although the chaos that engulfed the Iraqi capital after the collapse of Saddam's regime seemed to subside, a U.S. Marine was killed Saturday when two gunmen posing as landscape workers attacked a checkpoint at a medical facility, Central Command said.
Marines returned fire, killing one attacker, but the other escaped, Marine sources said.
The man who shot the Marine had a Syrian identification card, Central Command said. The Marine's name was withheld pending notification of relatives."