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Interview With Matthew Fisher

Aired April 13, 2003 - 11:46   ET


LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: I want to go back to our top story this morning, seven POWs now being handed over by Iraqi captors to Marines out on the road, and we're joined on the phone by Matthew Fisher, who was with us earlier. Matthew is with a Canadian newspaper and Matthew is actually embedded with the unit and actually was there and received these POWs at the handover. And, Matthew, we have got to hear from you directly exactly how that handover was executed.
Hello, Matthew. Are you there? I believe we may have lost Matthew Fisher. Matthew Fisher, as we said, he is with the "National Post" of Canada. And Matthew was embedded with the Marines who are out there patrolling just north of Samarra. We have Matthew now. Matthew is back on the line with us right now.


HARRIS: Yes, Matthew, I can hear you right now. Now, Matthew, while we've got you, we want to get right to it. Tell us exactly what you saw happen this morning.

FISHER: Well, I cannot tell you that I saw it myself. I was told this by the people who actually did it and I met them within minutes of it happening. It was D Company of the 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion out of 29 Palms, California. They were screening, that is, protecting the flank of a huge U.S. task force that's moving on the town of Tikrit, where the battle of Tikrit has now begun, and while we were doing this, a policeman came up to them and said, I have nothing to do with this but the prisoners are here. You can get them. And the Marines didn't know what he was talking about. They were astonished. They followed him, and they found the prisoners, the POWs, the seven of them.

Apparently a scene of tremendous joy, those who have been captured crying, those who had liberated them, a very emotional moment. The Marines formed a tight circle or scrum around the Army people. Apparently this was done so that they wouldn't feel as if they had been abandoned, so they knew they were being taken care of. Several of them were wounded. Navy corpsmen, they're always attached to the Marines, assisted those people. A young woman with gunshot wounds to her left leg and a man with a problem with his right arm, as I understand it. They were then -- they were wearing pajama-like clothing. The woman was wearing almost a Hawaiian outfit, a garish purple and white thing.

They were all given Marine Corps clothing, which everybody had a bit of a joke about, since they're all Army folks that they were liberating. They thanked them profusely to people who have liberated them, and said it was so great to be back with Americans.

Almost immediately they were whisked away by medivac helicopters that are on standby for this mission that is taking place in the town of Tikrit, so there was lots of helicopters available, and almost instantly they were airborne, headed south, and I gather they've switched to an airplane and are now in Kuwait.

HARRIS: So, Matthew, this entire operation, this entire surrender turned out to be a big surprise. The Marines weren't going in there locking for them, and this Iraqi person or official or police officer or whatever this person may be, just happened to stumble out there and meet them and find them? Was that totally by accident?

FISHER: It was totally -- it was totally an accident, totally happenstance. Most fortuitous, I'm sure you'll agree, in any circumstance. What I understood the Marines were told that the people who were being held captive had been moved constantly north. As the American forces advanced, they moved further and further north. One of the men who had been holding them told either the captors, those being held captive or the Marines that they had thought, because the Marines yesterday were 160 kilometers or 100 miles south of here, that they could hold them in this position for a few more days. But suddenly the Marines jumped forward last night with what you might describe as almost a surprise attack on Tikrit, and as they did so, the prisoners had not been moved. They were able to find them. And much joy, of course, not only among the Marines and the Army folks, but back in America.

HARRIS: Matthew, did they say anything at all about how many times they had been moved or the kinds of conditions under which they had been kept?

FISHER: My understanding is that they did not, at least to these people. My understanding is that they looked not so bad in terms of condition. They had grown beards. They were emaciated, a bit thin, perhaps they were not eating as well as they had hoped, but were not in dreadful condition. They were in fair condition, you could say. Who knows about their psychological state, but at least their physical state outwardly, it wasn't so bad. The corpsmen did patch them up a bit before sending them on, but it was, if you like, really first aid, just to help them over the hump until they reached the kind of medical care they'll get in a U.S. military hospital.

HARRIS: Yes, and you might be interested to know, Matthew, that that initial physical assessment was also kind of confirmed by many of the family members that we've been speaking to on the phone here who have been watching the pictures of them on the air, and they've all said the same thing, that they did look rather well physically.

Did they say anything at all, Matthew, or did the Marines tell you whether or not they heard them talk about whether or not they had been threatened or whether they felt their lives were being threatened throughout the entire process of their capture?

FISHER: I'm sorry. The Marines did not tell me that, and I did ask that question. What they told me was just repeatedly they were just joyous. They could not believe it. They could not contain their joy. They were, if you like, in ecstasy, as were the Marines. It's given them a tremendous shot in the arm as they go into the battle of the war tonight that's taking place up here.

It's just an immense stroke of good fortune that it has worked out this way, because if it had not, probably they would have been moved further north. I'm speculating, but there still is a bit of land up here that is held by loyalists of Saddam Hussein. That's why the Marines are up here. They're hoping tonight...

HARRIS: Matthew Fisher.

FISHER: ... Hussein and his followers.

HARRIS: Sorry, Matthew. Your phone is coming in and out. It sounds like we're about to lose you. Let me see if we can try one more question, then. After this fortunate happenstance occurred here, what happened with the mission that the Marines were on? Were they surprised to find that there was no resistance and that the Iraqis there were surprised to even see them? Did this in any way at all allow them to go ahead and actually maybe expedite their mission?

FISHER: Well, they were dumbfounded that at this town, the town of Samarra, that there wasn't any resistance to them getting the prisoners. There was no military engagement of any kind whatsoever there, but D Company of the 3rd Light Infantry -- or 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion had immediately moved northward (ph). They only had a couple of minutes to savor this triumph, if you like, and they have now moved forward to join the battle column for the battle of Tikrit, and that is taking place as we speak right now, so there is combat taking place here tonight, not fortunately where the prisoners of war were, but about 20, 25 miles to the north of where they were rescued, in and around the town of Tikrit. There's a lot going on here tonight. We'll find out, I guess, in the next few hours whether this is the last Saddam Hussein -- we'll also find out whether this is the biggest war, the biggest battle of the war, or will they at the last moment run away, the Iraqi forces I mean, as they've done so many times before.

HARRIS: We know a lot of people are expecting that. Matthew, I'm sorry, I've got to try another one. Let me ask you this about the Iraqis who actually -- the Iraqi or Iraqis who turned them over, turned the POWs over. First of all, how many Iraqis were involved with that, and, secondly, do you know exactly what happened to them? Have they been taken -- captured themselves by the Marines, or are they being treated as enemies or are they being rewarded, or what? What do you know about them?

FISHER: I can tell you there were at least two Iraqis involved. The policeman and one man who was holding them was involved in this transfer. I know that much. I don't know more about that. On the second question, I asked it specifically of a very senior American officer here, and he looked at me and said, I can't answer that question. I did not understand from his answer, although he's been a very, very helpful man whether he meant that he did not know the answer to that question, or could not answer the question about whether they've been taken prisoner or not, or how they were treated.

I have no idea. All I do know is that the soldier, the Marines that were involved in this operation immediately left to resume what their principal mission is today, tonight and tomorrow morning, and so if they were taken prisoner, I don't know who would have taken them prisoner, because they came up here so fast. Of course, there are other units around. Maybe somebody else did. I'm speculating.

HARRIS: Matthew Fisher of the "National Post of Canada," it's been a day of surprise for all. And we thank you very much for your helping us get all the facts here. Thank you very much, take care, and be careful over there, Matthew Fisher.


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