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Australian Iraq casualty buried after body mix-up

Written by: Staff
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CANBERRA, May 2 (Reuters) The first Australian soldier killed on active duty in Iraq was buried with full military honours today amid confusion over the cause of death and a bungle which saw the wrong body initially sent home from Baghdad.

Prime Minister John Howard attended the funeral of Jake Kovco as authorities cleared the body of a Bosnian man to be sent back to his family after it was wrongly shipped to Australia.

Kovco, 25, a sniper deployed to provide security for Australian officials in Baghdad, died after he was shot in the head in his room in the Iraqi capital on April 21.

Australia's Defence Force originally said Kovco died after an accident while he was cleaning his handgun, but an inquiry is now under way after it was found he was not cleaning his gun at the time.

''There is no evidence to suggest it was anything other than a tragic accident,'' the Australian Army newspaper today said.

Australian newspapers said a coroner had found the gun was not close to Kovco's head when he was killed, lessening the possibility his death was suicide. The Age newspaper said the bullet that killed Kovco was still missing.

The body mix-up and continuing confusion over how Kovco died has severely embarrassed the government. Both the prime minister and his defence minister have personally apologised to Kovco's widow for the bungles.

An Australian coroner has formally identified 47-year-old Bosnian contractor Juso Sinanovic, who died of a stroke on April 17, as the man sent to Australian instead of Kovco last week.

Sinanovic's body was released to the Defence Department today.

A spokesman said Sinanovic's body was expected to be returned to Bosnia, via Kuwait, later this week.

Howard, Defence Force chief Angus Houston, and Nelson all attended Kovco's funeral in the small town of Briagolong in the southern state of Victoria.

The coffin, draped in an Australian flag, was borne on a gun carriage to the nearby cemetery for burial.

Kovco was the first serving Australian soldier to die in Iraq, although an Australian was killed there last year while serving with Britain's Royal Air Force, and a special forces soldier died in an accident while awaiting deployment to Iraq.

Australia was one of the first countries to commit forces to the US-led Iraq war and still has about 1,300 military personnel in and around Iraq.

REUTERS OM SSC1252

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