The harrowing escape of a US driver held captive in Iraq

Sunday morning at around 11:15 a wounded man came panting up to a New York National Guard unit near the Iraqi town of Belad, about 30 miles south of Tikrit.

The man said he was an American: Thomas Hamill, a contractor kidnapped last month after insurgents ambushed a convoy in which he'd been driving. He said he'd heard the US patrol pass the building in which he was being held, so he'd pried a door open and chased them half a mile up the road.

Other than an old gunshot wound to the arm, Mr. Hamill seemed fine, so the US troops hastily cordoned off the house where he'd been held prisoner, capturing two Iraqis and one AK-47 automatic rifle. Hamill was then evacuated to Baghdad - an emotional bit of good news after a month of record US casualties and increasing insurgent attacks. "I'm just so happy my daddy's going to be home," says his 11-year-old daughter, Tori.

Like Jessica Lynch, the young soldier from West Virginia whose escape from Iraqi captors was front-page news during the phase of major combat operations, Hamill

hails from a rural area.

A former dairy farmer from Macon, Miss., Hamill had signed up with Kellogg, Brown & Root as a truck driver to make enough cash to give his family a cushion against his home region's tough economic times.

His wife works as a 911 emergency phone operator, and Hamill himself has served as volunteer fireman.

As the news of his unexpected escape spread through close-knit Noxubee County, neighbors rushed to celebrate and congratulate his family at their modest ranch home.

"We're going to have a parade that will never end," Macon Mayor Dorothy Baker Hines told the Associated Press.

At the church that Hamill and his family attend, Calgary Baptist in Macon, joy was filling the pews Sunday. Kellie Hamill, with the couple's two children, fielded reporters' questions and endless hugs from fellow members.

At least 70 people were attending the church. The looks on their faces telegraphed the good news of the day.

"Everybody's happy," says John Gauntt, a farmer and deacon at the church. "We're just praising God. He's answerred our prayers. There was never any real sense that he wouldn't come home."

Mrs. Hamill says that her husband had called her at about 6:45 a.m. to tell her he had escaped and was fine. A previous call from his employers had put her on alert to the good news.

"It's wonderful just knowing he's on his way home," says Mrs. Hamill. "The news has sunk in, and we're just full of joy."

Adds worshiper Cate Ledbetter: "We always knew he was in the Lord's hands and never gave up hope."

In what may be a concerted insurgent tactic, dozens of foreigners have been kidnapped in Iraq in recent weeks. Many have been released, but others remain unaccounted for. A US soldier and three Italians are among those now thought to be alive and in adversarial hands.

One mystery still unresolved concerning Hamill's capture and escape is how and why he came to the Belad, Iraq, area.

The unit whose grinding engines had alerted Hamill to the presence of US machinery was in the area to patrol a length of petroleum pipeline. They were over a hundred miles away from the area near Baghdad International Airport where Hamill's fuel convoy was attacked, and he was captured, on April 9.

Little is known about the relationships between the various groups that have kidnapped foreigners in Iraq.

Some have been Shiite militias close to Muqtada al-Sadr, the anti-US cleric based in Najaf. But many of the kidnappers have been Sunnis who appear to have at least a loose network across the whole of the country.

Alexandre Jordanov, a cameraman who works for Capa Television in Paris, was released on April 14 after four days of captivity in which he was routinely threatened and nearly constantly moved to avoid detection by the US.

Other kidnap victims told of being passed from group to group as they moved across the country, and that may have been how Hamill ended up in Balad, though the US military says it is still pulling together the full details of his captivity.

Captives have had widely varying circumstances, with some routinely beaten and threatened and others well-treated. Two journalists picked up on the road outside Fallujah in early April by bandits were released after a group of Sunni resistance fighters intervened on their behalf.

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