Jessica Lynch, a 19-year-old private first class missing since the ambush of an Army maintenance company 10 days ago in southern Iraq, has been rescued by Special Operations forces, defense officials said yesterday.
CIA operatives in Iraq located Lynch in a hospital near Nasiriyah, where she was being held because of multiple wounds, officials said, and a helicopter-borne team of Navy SEALs and Army Rangers rescued her about midnight local time.
Officials said she had been separated from the other members of the 507th Ordnance Maintenance Company captured after the ambush. No other POWs were in or near the hospital at the time of her rescue, sources said.
The Special Operations team also discovered the bodies of about 10 men in the hospital, a Marine officer said. Some of the remains were believed to be those of Americans, the officer said, and efforts were being made to identify them.
Jim Wilkinson, a Central Command spokesman in Qatar, said in an interview with CNN that Lynch was in good spirits. "America is a nation that does not leave its heroes behind," he said. "She's safe in coalition hands and happier than where she was."
As news of Lynch's rescue spread last night, a jubilant crowd of friends and neighbors gathered at her parents' home in Palestine, W.Va.
"I was there when they got the news," said Linda Davies, Lynch's former kindergarten teacher and a family friend. "A neighbor who's been staying with the Lynches a lot came running in screaming, 'Jessica's alive! Jessica's alive!' and we went racing up to the house.
"Jessica's father was standing at the end of the road and waving. A general or some official from the hospital where Jessica's at called the family first, then they saw it live on TV. She's supposed to call them tonight."
The CIA, which has played a significant role in finding targets for the military and has liaisons in every major military command involved in the war in Iraq, identified Lynch's location and fed the geographical coordinates to U.S. Central Command, a U.S. official said. That allowed the Special Operations rescue team -- which is on 24-hour standby in a nearby Persian Gulf country -- "to swoop down quickly" and rescue her, the official said.
The CIA declined to comment on the mission.
U.S. forces staged a decoy attack in Nasiriyah to divert Iraqi attention from the rescue, Reuters reported last night.
"U.S. Marines sent a large force led by tanks and armored personnel carriers to hit targets in the center of the city and to seize a key bridge over the Euphrates while the hospital raid was underway," a military source told the news agency. "The operation was timed so that U.S. forces rolled over the highway . . . bridge 15 minutes before the raid."
Lynch's maintenance company, based at Fort Bliss, Tex., and supporting the 3rd Infantry Division, was part of a long convoy threading through southern Iraq toward Baghdad on March 23. Her unit took a wrong turn onto a road unsecured by U.S. combat forces, and was ambushed by Iraqi militiamen near Nasiriyah, the site of a strategic crossing on the Euphrates River. Three days later, the Army listed two members of the unit as dead, five as prisoners of war and eight -- including Lynch -- as "duty status whereabouts unknown," or missing in action.
Iraqi state television had already broadcast a videotape that showed interrogators questioning the five -- four men and a woman in U.S. military uniforms. The tape also showed at least four bodies. Since the Army's announcement, there had been no further information about what happened to Lynch and no indication that she was alive and taken prisoner.
The second of three children, Lynch graduated from Wirt County High School near her home in Palestine in the central part of West Virginia. As a senior, she had interviewed with recruiters from several military branches, and decided the Army was offering the best deal. She was finishing her second year and had just signed on for another four-year stint. Before arriving in the Middle East three weeks ago, she had never been outside the United States.
A cousin who answered the phone at the Lynch home in Palestine last night said, in a breathless voice: "The family's not giving out any interviews tonight. Please call in the morning." Asked how they were doing, the cousin said, "Great! Great!"
A cashier at Dick's Market in neighboring Elizabeth, where Lynch's brother, Gregory Jr., used to work, spoke with him last night and reported that the family had heard that Lynch is "dazed and confused, but otherwise all right."
Staff Sgt. James Grady, the Army recruiter who enlisted Lynch and her brother, joyously confirmed her rescue. "It's true," he said. "I spoke with her family on the phone, and they received notification. She is rescued. By the Army Rangers and Navy SEALs. She's in the hospital now."
Grady said he had no other information about Lynch's condition or details of her rescue.
"I'm ecstatic," he said. "Her situation had been something that was very troublesome to me and my family. Her family mentioned that there's going to be a big welcome-home party, and I'll definitely be there."
Jean Offutt, public affairs officer at the 507th's headquarters at Fort Bliss, said people there were "jubilant, full of joy and hopeful that we will have news of the others soon."
One Special Operations officer said he hoped other elite military units were going after the other five prisoners of war from the 507th, who are probably being held in the same area. At the very least, he said, news of Lynch's rescue could help the others psychologically. "We talk about small victories and train you to cherish them. This is a small victory."
Staff writers Bradley Graham, Tamara Jones, Thomas E. Ricks and Alan Cooperman contributed to this report.