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SOLDIERS DESCRIBE RESCUE

Hostage reportedly escaped in desert, but returned

BAGHDAD — American hostage Thomas Hamill was sitting in a mud shack with a bullet wound festering in his arm when he heard the rumble of Army Humvees and made a break for it. He stumbled into the desert and waved his shirt to get the attention of passing soldiers.

‘‘He was yelling, ‘I’m an American, I’m an American POW,’.’’ recalled Lt. Lieutenant Joseph Merrill, a member of an Army platoon that happened upon the grizzled Mississippi contract worker north of Baghdad on Sunday morning.

As Hamill whooped, soldiers radioed in that a farmer was approaching them. Hamill tripped and fell a few times, rising each time. Soon the soldiers understood he was shouting in English and somebody recognized the hostage, Merrill said.

‘‘From a distance, it was obvious he was unarmed, so we did not have our weapons trained on him,’’ the lieutenant said.

The 43-year-old truck driver was taken Mondayyesterday to the US military’s Landstuhl Regional Medical Center cq/rfd in Germany for treatment and a reunion with his wife, Kellie, expected on Tuesday today.

‘‘He’s doing good, very good,’’ Landstuhl spokeswoman Marie Shaw said.

Hamill’s whereabouts had been unknown since he was seen in a dramatic video taken after guerrillas captured him during an April 9 ambush on a supply convoy. Gunmen shot up and set fire to the vehicles on the outskirts of Baghdad. Hamill was wounded in the right forearm.

Some three weeks later, Hamill’s captors took him to a mud farmhouse near the town of Balad, 50 miles north of Baghdad.

The door to Hamill’s room was a piece of sheet metal propped up by a board. Hamill, of Macon, Miss., told soldiers he believed a single guard was nearby, but out of sight.

About 11:15 a.m. Sunday, soldiers from the New York National Guard’s 2d Battalion, 108th Infantry Regiment drove were driving their Humvees along a stretch of road next to a broken oil pipeline.

When Hamill heard the Humvees, he knocked over the sheet metal, pried open the doors of the shack, and ran about 300 yards toward the convoy.

‘‘He said he thought this was the only chance he had, so he made a run for it,’’ said Merrill, of Deposit, N.Y. ‘‘He said he didn’t know if the guard was there or not.’’

Four soldiers who described the escape refused to answer questions about Hamill’s time in captivity.

Merrill, who spent less than two hours with the former hostage, said Hamill was disoriented but in good health. He had just one bottle of water and didn’t know exactly where he was.

‘‘He was obviously very glad to see us,’’ Merrill said.

Hamill escorted the platoon back to the shack, which was empty. Soldiers found an abandoned AK-47. A military photo taken in the shack showed his bed arranged on a couple of couch cushions on the dirt floor, with a blanket tossed over them. A bucket served as his latrine.

The Mississippi man Hamill told soldiers he’d been well treated by his captors, who gave him a rudimentary medical kit, a box of cookies, and an oil lamp. Troops arrested two Iraqis farming in a field near the shack, Merrill said.

Captain George Rodriguez said aiding in Hamill’s rescue ‘‘actually felt kind of good — something that I think everybody wants to do.’’

Hamill’s kidnapping was widely reported: shortly after the ambush, his abductors spotted journalists and had them videotape Hamill sitting in a car seated next to a masked gunman.

In the brief, startling images, Hamill identified himself and told the cameraman from Australia’s ABC television, ‘‘They attacked our convoy. That’s all I’m going to say.’’ Then the car sped off down the highway, passing a burning tanker truck.

Hamill’s captors later threatened to kill him unless the United States lifted its siege of Fallujah.

Hamill’s cousin, Jason Higginbotham, told CNN that Hamill had tried to escape before but went back to his captors, apparently unnoticed, after finding himself in the desert without food or water.

‘‘He escaped one time about three days earlier and he was out in the middle of the desert. A helicopter came over and he tried to flag it down, but they evidently didn’t see him,’’ Higginbotham said. ‘‘They were taking fairly good care of him, so he went and put himself back in captivity without them knowing.’’

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