WASHINGTON (AP) – American troops yesterday rescued Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch, who had been held as a prisoner of war in Iraq since she and other members of her unit were ambushed March 23, the Defense Department announced.

Lynch, 19, of Palestine, W.Va., had been missing with 11 other U.S. soldiers from the 507th Maintenance Company. The unit was ambushed near Nasiriyah after making a wrong turn during early fighting in the invasion of Iraq. Five other members of her unit were later shown on Iraqi television answering questions from their Iraqi captors.

U.S. troops rescued Lynch near where her unit was ambushed, said Jean Offutt, a spokeswoman for Fort Bliss, Texas. The 507th Maintenance is based at Fort Bliss.

Lynch had been listed as missing in action but was identified by the Pentagon Tuesday as a POW. She was not among the seven U.S. soldiers – including the five from the 507th shown on television – formally listed as prisoners of war.

Offutt said she did not know whether Lynch had been wounded or when she might return to the United States.

The rescued soldier’s hometown erupted in celebration at the news.

“They said it was going to be the biggest party this road had ever seen,” Lynch’s cousin Sherri McFee said as fire and police sirens blared in the background.

“Everybody was really worried … but we all remained hopeful and knew she would be home,” McFee said.

Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks at Central Command headquarters in Qatar announced that a U.S. POW had been rescued but refused to provide any further details.

In a brief statement, Brooks said: “Coalition forces have conducted a successful rescue mission of a U.S. Army prisoner of war held captive in Iraq. The soldier has been returned to a coalition-controlled area.”

Central Command officials in Qatar, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Lynch was rescued from a hospital in Iraq.

Fifteen other Americans are formally listed as missing. The other POWs include two Army Apache helicopter pilots captured March 24 after their helicopter went down.

The 507th Maintenance was attacked during some of the first fighting in Nasiriyah, a Euphrates River-crossing city where sporadic battles have raged since U.S. troops first reached it. Troops and military officials have said much of the fighting there has involved members of the Fedayeen Saddam and other Iraqi paramilitaries who have dressed as civilians and ambushed Americans.

Lynch, an aspiring teacher, joined the Army to get an education and take advantage of a rare opportunity in a farming community with an unemployment rate of 15 percent – one of the highest in West Virginia.

She was also following in the footsteps of her older brother Gregory, a National Guard member based in Fort Bragg, N.C. Jessica enlisted through the Army’s delayed-entry program before graduating from Wirt County High School in Elizabeth.

“You would not believe the joys, cries, bawling, hugging, screaming, carrying on,” said Lynch’s cousin, Pam Nicolais, when asked yesterday about the rescue. “You just have to be here.”

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