Wrong body sent to soldier’s family

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SYDNEY, Australia (AP) – The grieving relatives of an Australian soldier killed in Iraq were distressed to learn that the wrong body was sent home in his place, the defense minister said Thursday.

Pvt. Jacob Kovco, 25, died in a U.S. military hospital in Baghdad last week, military officials said. He was accidentally shot in his room inside the Green Zone in the Iraqi capital.

Kovco was the second soldier with Australian citizenship to die in Iraq since the U.S.-led war began in 2003, but he was the Australian military’s first casualty.

Kovco was due to be buried near the southern city of Melbourne with full military honors, but the casket that arrived in Australia early Thursday contained the wrong body, the Defense Department said.

Defense Minister Brendan Nelson said he and Australian Army Chief Lt. Gen. Peter Leahy flew to Kovco’s hometown in southeastern Victoria state to tell the soldier’s family about the mistake.

“Needless to say, the Kovco family were quite distressed,” Nelson said in Melbourne.

He said Kovco’s wife, Shelley, spoke to Prime Minister John Howard by telephone and “expressed her disappointment and distress that her husband’s casket had not been dispatched to Australia.”

Nelson said a private mortuary in Kuwait appeared to be responsible for the mistake, and the Australian government was investigating how Kovco’s coffin was swapped for another.

Kovco’s mother, Judy, later told The Age newspaper’s online edition that officials had told her the body of a Bosnian soldier had been sent by mistake.

Howard later said he felt extremely sorry for Kovco’s mother, and that she had declined his offer to fly to Kuwait on his private jet and escort her son’s remains home later this week.

“She was very distressed, she was very angry, she was very upset, and all of that is totally understandable,” Howard told Southern Cross Broadcasting.

Kovco’s cousin Adam Backman called the mix-up an “absolute disgrace.”

“It’s shocking. It’s a disgrace. The government and the Australian army should be ashamed of themselves,” he told Southern Cross radio.

Nelson was unable to explain how the accident that killed Kovco occurred. He said only that Kovco was in his room with two other soldiers and his 9 mm Browning pistol was nearby.

“He made some kind of movement, which suggests that it discharged,” Nelson said. There was no evidence that either of the soldiers in the room with him were involved, he added.

“There is no evidence that it was anything other than an accident,” Nelson said.

He denied reports that the soldier had shot himself while cleaning his gun.

Backman accused the government of not telling the full story of his cousin’s death.

“I can see the way everybody is talking, the government and everything. We’re never going to be told the truth about what happened to him,” he said. “The story changes and changes and changes.”

A staunch U.S. ally, Australia maintains about 1,300 troops in Iraq and the Middle East.

AP-ES-04-27-06 1236EDT

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