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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

Pentagon Confirms U.S. Apache Pilots Taken Prisoner

Aired March 25, 2003 - 04:17   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Things have heated up in northern Iraq. We want to bring you to the opposite side of the country right now to check in with reporter Karl Penhaul with Army V Corps, 11th Attack Helicopter Regiment.
Karl -- can you tell us what the action looks like now?

KARL PENHAUL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, the situation this morning is that the Pentagon has confirmed that two of the pilots involved in the combat mission against Republican Guard units two nights ago have been captured and are now in Iraqi hands. Those pilots were part of a mission that was flying against the 2nd Armored Brigade of the Medina Division of the Republican Guard in the early hours of Monday morning.

Pilots have been recounting further some of their experiences during that firefight. The mission itself lasted about three hours and is seen as key in clearing the way to the further advance of infantry units towards Baghdad. This fight of early Monday mission was around the town of Karbala, and there the Republican Guard (UNINTELLIGIBLE) with T-72 tanks and multiple artillery positions.

There was somewhat stiffer resistance than expected on that mission, particularly from anti-aircraft fire. Most of the helicopters that successfully returned to the airfield where I am at now did receive bullet impacts, some of it from small arms fire, some of it from anti-aircraft fire.

What the pilots are doing now, though, is assessing the damage and working with maintenance crews to ensure that these helicopters can get back up in the air and back into the fight -- Carol.

COSTELLO: Karl, knowing that two pilots from that company are in the hands of the Iraqi government right now, what's the mood like? What is the mood like?

PENHAUL: A little difficult to speak too much in detail about those kinds of things, Carol, but certainly within the battalion there is a great, strong team spirit. When any team members are in Iraqi hands, then obviously that does have an impact here. But like I say, the focus of the battalion right now is to get the helicopters back up and running, get back in the fight. That says a little bit about the attitude of this unit that they do want to get back in the fray, but obviously are concerned about the fate of their colleagues, though -- Carol.

COSTELLO: And from what we understand, that Apache helicopter that somehow ended up in southern -- 50 miles from Baghdad, I should say, they had to blow it up. Can you tell us more about that?

PENHAUL: I do understand that the aircraft has now been blown up. That's a routine security precaution to make sure that Iraqi forces don't capture any sensitive material or video material or are able to detect any more about the weapons systems that these helicopters carry on board. They are fairly high-tech machines, $25 million worth, and so the intention of the U.S. Army there are that those types of machines do not fall into Iraqi hands -- Carol.

COSTELLO: And, Karl, I want to talk a little bit about the weather, because we've heard there are sand storms right now. Are they happening where you are?

PENHAUL: Absolutely. There's a very strong sand storm, and that was blowing up as of last night. It's very unpleasant. That said, the soldiers are equipped with goggles and protective wear, and so they are continuing about their duties, setting up command posts.

Parts of a convoy that left northern Kuwait probably four days ago now, the main elements of that convoy are now arriving here. The advance parties have been here for some days, and in fact were here to enable the helicopter mission against the Republican Guard to be launched. But the main body of that convoy now arriving and tents being unpacked, living quarters being unpacked, and weaponry also being unpacked -- Carol.

COSTELLO: Yes, and of course, you can't fly in a sand storm, so many in your unit are probably frustrated by the weather at this point.

PENHAUL: Well, the helicopters could, in fact, fly in certain sand storms. The Apaches themselves have got infrared and also the imaging and targeting equipment. So it's not necessarily a question of that if push came to shove.

There will be some decision on that, but quite simply from what I understand of commanders, we're not at that stage of the fight yet, that U.S. forces aren't at that stage of the fight yet, that they don't need to put these helicopters in the air right now. And like I say, considering the battalion that I'm with, the assessments today are of battle damage from (UNINTELLIGIBLE) -- Carol.

COSTELLO: Thank you -- Karl Penhaul from northern Kuwait this morning.

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