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Associated Press

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (AP) - Six lion cubs born in the cramped zoo owned by Saddam Hussein's son Odai will find freedom in the African bush.

The nonprofit SanWild Wildlife Sanctuary has secured the release of the six cubs, their mother and two other lions.

"I am just sorry we could not get all the animals out," Louise Joubert, founder of the group based in the northern Limpopo Province, told The Associated Press.

American troops rescued the lions in April, along with two cheetahs and a blind bear from a private zoo set up by Odai in one of Baghdad's presidential palaces, and moved them to the Baghdad municipal zoo. There was so little food to feed the lions that they had to snack on military rations U.S. soldiers tossed inside their cages. Most other animals were set loose by the troops or looters.

The lions are scheduled to arrive in South Africa in July and will be taken to SanWild, about 280 miles north of Johannesburg.

The lioness and her six cubs will be in isolation for 10 months to a year before being taken as a group to the Ngome Community Reserve in the KwaZulu-Natal province, Joubert said.

The other two lions will remain at SanWild, where they will be placed with a brother and sister pair in the hope that they would be incorporated into the group, she said.

"On the trauma side there is not much that one can do. They will be in nature which will enable them to be lions again. There is nothing like nature to heal," Joubert said. "Lions never ever lose their natural instincts to hunt. They just have to be allowed to get used to hunting again."

The bear is expected to be sent to Greece, where it will be operated on by a Johannesburg veterinarian who has volunteered to help it see again free of charge, Joubert said.

Another South African veterinarian will travel to Baghdad with a SanWild employee to accompany the lions back to South Africa, she said.

The South Africans have joined forces with Care for the Wild International to raise funds to improve the conditions for the remaining animals at Baghdad Zoo, Joubert said.

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