IMAGE: Kovco casket
Flt. Lt. Fiona Harris  /  Australian Defense Force via AP
This photo shows the casket of Australian army Pvt. Jake Kovco being loaded onto a plane before leaving Baghdad on April 23. However, the casket that arrived in Australia early Thursday contained the wrong body, the Defense Department said.
updated 4/27/2006 7:21:36 AM ET 2006-04-27T11:21:36

The grieving relatives of an Australian soldier killed in Iraq were distressed to learn that the wrong body accidentally was sent home, the defense minister said Thursday.

Pvt. Jacob Kovco, 25, died in a U.S. military hospital in Baghdad last week after he was accidentally shot inside the city’s secure green zone, military officials said.

He 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.

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

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 told reporters.

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.”

Relatives: An 'absolute disgrace'
Nelson said a private mortuary in Kuwait appeared to be responsible for the mistake, and the Australian government was investigating the cause of the mix-up.

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.

IMAGE: Pvt. Jake Kovco
Australian Defense Force via AP
Pvt. Jake Kovco died last week in Baghdad.
Kovco’s case will be managed by the Victoria state coroner once his body is returned to Australia, he said. He did not give more details or identify the body that was sent to Australia.

The defense minister also denied earlier reports that the soldier had shot himself while cleaning his gun. “He wasn’t in fact cleaning his weapon,” Nelson said.

He was unable to explain how the accident occurred, however, saying only that Kovco was in his room with two other soldiers and his 9 mm Browning pistol at the time.

“It (the pistol) was near him, in his vicinity, and he made some kind of movement which suggests that it discharged,” Nelson said, adding that nothing indicated that either of the soldiers in the room with him was involved.

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

The full story?
Backman accused the government of not telling the full story.

“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.

Last year, Flight Lt. Paul Pardoel, a dual Australian-British citizen serving in Britain’s Royal Air Force, was killed when his plane crashed in Baghdad. Pardoel was buried in Australia with full military honors.

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