Evacuations to wind back

“The government plans to continue providing ferries to assist Australians to depart for a further two days, Monday 24 July and Tuesday 25 July,” Mr Downer said in a statement.


“The government will do its best to assist Australians to depart from Lebanon after 25 July though its capacity to do so will be

seriously constrained.”

Mr Downer said to date, around 3,700 Australians had departed with the assistance of the government.

Howard hits back at critics

Prime Minister John Howard has also urged those Australians still in Lebanon to leave without delay.

Speaking in Victoria, Mr Howard hit back at critics of the government’s efforts to evacuate Australians.

“I think some of the comments made last week by certain community leaders were totally unfair and totally unjustified, and completely over the top in their criticism of what the Australian government was doing,” he said.

“To my knowledge, there has been no loss of life or serious injury directly attributable to any alleged slowness on the part of any Australian official to get people out.”

Govt may send ship

Australia is trying to get its own chartered ship into southern Lebanon to try to rescue stranded Australians.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) earlier advised Australians trapped in the worst hit area of war-torn Lebanon they may be able to find places on German or Canadian ships leaving Tyre.

But a DFAT spokesman says Australian officials are working to also secure its own chartered ship in case more spaces are needed.

“We are continuing our negotiations with the Germans, also the Canadians,” he said. “To ensure adequate capacity we are making arrangements for an Australian vessel.

“That is subject to significant security issues being addressed, which includes approval from relevant authorities.”

It is understood the government is talking to the Israeli defence force about whether it could get a vessel in safely.

Buses to depart Sidon

The Australian Embassy is also arranging buses to travel from Sidon today, leaving at about 1900 AEST to evacuate citizens in the south.

Cars will collect Australians from the villages of Nabatieh, Khiam, Marjayoun, Hasbaya and Rachaiya for transport to Sidon to join the buses.

The government is unsure how many Australians are looking to leave the south because communication into the region is difficult after the bombing of mobile phone towers, as well as power shortages.

“DFAT are using resources both in Lebanon and community contacts in Australia to confirm numbers and locations in southern Lebanon,” the DFAT spokesman said.

Education indigenous ‘key’: PM

In a major speech on reconciliation today, Mr Howard said improving education standards for young Aboriginal people was crucial to giving them a better path in life.


But high profile Aboriginal leader Mick Dodson, who also addressed the lunch in Melbourne, called on the prime minister to acknowledge that his shared responsibility approach to indigenous Australia was not working.

Mr Howard drew on 2004 figures that showed the full-time employment rate for indigenous graduates was 80.1 per cent, higher than the rate for non-indigenous graduates of 78.6 per cent.

He said average starting salaries for indigenous bachelor (degree) level graduates were also higher than for other graduates.

However, he acknowledged that the numbers of young Aborigines getting to this stage of education was still lower than the non-indigenous population, with forty per cent of indigenous students studying until Year 12 level in 2004 – half the rate in the non-indigenous population.

Shared responsibility ‘not delivering’

Professor Dodson said the government’s policy of mutual obligation in indigenous affairs was struggling under the weight of a centralised bureaucracy and a lack of funds, and the promise of involving Aboriginal people in finding local solutions to their problems was fading.

“You and I, prime minister, must be honest with each other and acknowledge that this promising approach is struggling to deliver,” Professor Dodson said.

“We are seeing serious problems in the bureaucracy’s capacity to make it work.

“There are serious questions about whether the shared responsibility framework is being played out on the ground in a way that gives indigenous people a real chance to make decisions that affect our lives.”

In the past, Professor Dodson has raised concerns about the government’s shared responsibility agreements with indigenous communities – where funding and services are linked to behavioural change like school attendance and hygiene.

Mr Howard said the proportion of indigenous adults with a vocational or higher education qualification had never been higher – but more work was needed to improve retention and completion rates.

But improving indigenous access to education required government, communities, families and individuals to work together, he said.

“It means governments delivering functional class rooms and good teachers. It means enforcing truancy laws and upholding education standards,” Mr Howard said.

“It means parents and carers making sure that children attend school every day, well fed and ready to learn.”

The government is promising to spend $2.1 billion on indigenous specific assistance to preschools, primary and secondary schools and tertiary providers between 2005 and 2008.

‘Practical’ reconciliation preferred

Mr Howard indicated improving educational opportunities for Aboriginal people as the kind of practical reconciliation he preferred.

But he warned that ensuring Aboriginal people had the same opportunities as non-indigenous Australians would be “the work of generations”.

However Professor Dodson said no partnership between the Aboriginal community and the government could be successful without addressing some of the issues Mr Howard has always put to the side, such as the stolen generations and a treaty.

He also said indigenous Australia needed real and ongoing funding to improve education and health standards, as well as housing.

However Professor Dodson, who has been fiercely critical of the government over its decision to abolish ATSIC and its 10-point Wik plan that eroded native title rights on farm land, said he was prepared to put aside differences to see reconciliation advance.

Kovco body escort ‘exhausted’

Pte Kovco’s platoon sergeant said he was devastated to learn there had been a major mix-up over the repatriation of his mate’s body.


He told the board of inquiry into Pte Kovco’s death that while he made several checks to try to ensure the right body was sent home to Australia, he failed.

The sergeant, codenamed Soldier 2, said he was so tired and stressed by the time he made a final check on what he believed was Pte Kovco’s body at a civilian mortuary in Kuwait that he only gave it a cursory glance while standing two or three metres away.

“As it turned out, I don’t believe I was psychologically suited to the task,” Soldier 2, who has received counselling over the bungle, said.

“I was tired, emotional and under stress. I wasn’t in the mood to have a good look for a number of reasons.

“Obviously in retrospect there’s more that could have been done and the vigilance I displayed at the mortuary was lacking and I take responsibility for that lack of vigilance.”

Pte Kovco died after being shot in the head inside his Baghdad barracks on April 21.

But his body was left by mistake at a civilian mortuary in Kuwait, with the corpse of a Bosnian carpenter flown to Australia instead.

Soldier 2 said a group of Pte Kovco’s mates who also accompanied his body to Kuwait were desperate to ensure there was no mix-up and implored him to make regular checks.

He said he tried his best to meet their requests, and checked the body during its transfer from the US military hospital in Baghdad where Pte Kovco died, to a military morgue and finally the mortuary in Kuwait.

But seeing the body so many times left Soldier 2 extremely stressed and compounded the pressure he felt to ensure Pte Kovco’s coffin was sent home quickly.

His superior officers had also not given him any explicit instructions about what his responsibilities were as Pte Kovco’s escort.

Soldier 2 said it was difficult to identify Pte Kovco because he looked so different – given the gunshot wound to his head and because his body had been embalmed.

He said four other people were with him in the mortuary when the body was presented, including the Australian Embassy in Kuwait’s first secretary Alastar (Alastar) Adams, who had a photo of Pte Kovco.

The diplomat “appeared to be satisfied that the body was Pte Kovco’s”, Soldier 2 said.

“Furthermore, I assumed that there was only one body in a military body bag and I expected the (morgue) staff would have ensured that the correct body was presented.

“As a consequence … the attention I paid was cursory.”

Pte Kovco’s parents today told Soldier 2 he was not to blame.

“They do not blame you for what occurred in relation to the repatriation and they thank you for your expression of regret,” the couple said through their lawyer.

Meanwhile, Pte Kovco’s two roommates who were with him when he was shot are being flown back from Baghdad to front the inquiry next week and undergo DNA tests for police.

Kovco escort ‘not to blame’

One of Pte Kovco’s commanding officers told the inquiry it was extremely difficult to identify the young Victorian soldier’s corpse before it was returned to Australia.


Pte Kovco died on April 21 after being shot in the head with his own pistol inside his Baghdad barracks.

His commanding officer, a company sergeant major, codenamed Soldier 33, said he found it almost impossible to recognise Pte Kovco when he saw his body in a Kuwait morgue.

Graphic photos shown to the inquiry at Victoria Barracks in

Sydney showed Pte Kovco’s pale face with swollen black eyelids and bloody bandages on top of his head.

Around his neck was a brace with various tubes and other medical devices sticking out of his mouth.

The escort platoon sergeant, codenamed Soldier 2, mistook the body of a Bosnian carpenter for Pte Kovco when he made a final identification check at a civilian morgue in Kuwait.

The carpenter’s body was then flown to Australia instead of Pte Kovco’s corpse.

But Soldier 33 said Pte Kovco’s original escort was not to blame for the mix-up.

Soldier 33 said when he went to the Kuwait morgue after the bungle was discovered, he had problems identifying Pte Kovco even though he had known him for quite a while.

“He was almost impossible to recognise when I looked in the body bag,” Soldier 33 told the inquiry in a statement.

“The escorting officer should not be made a scapegoat for the mix-up. Anyone could have got the initial identification wrong.”

Soldier 2 told the inquiry on Tuesday that he was devastated when he learned about the repatriation bungle.

He said that at the time he had to make the final check of Pte

Kovco’s body in Kuwait, he was extremely stressed, tired and emotional.

Finishing his evidence before the inquiry on Wednesday, Soldier 2 said he didn’t realise when he did the final check that the body shown to him had a moustache but no neck brace or any medical tubes in his mouth.

“I didn’t notice the difference,” he said.

“Obviously the environment I was in at the time had a bearing on it.

“The fact that I wasn’t, I didn’t feel I wanted to have a detailed look at the body as well. Basically those are the factors.”

’Not suicidal’

Meanwhile a leading psychiatrist told the inquiry that Private Kovco was not feeling suicidal at the time he was shot in the head in Baghdad.

University of Adelaide professor of psychiatry, Sandy McFarlane, told the inquiry he did not believe the Victorian deliberately shot himself in the head with his 9mm pistol on April 21 this year.

Prof McFarlane had examined Pte Kovco’s personal diary, his psychiatric records and written statements by other soldiers about the shooting.

The inquiry has heard previously that about a month before he was shot in the head, Private Kovco wrote about a gory dream in which he had a disturbing premonition of his death.

But Prof McFarlane said Pte Kovco had noted in his diary entry about the dream that he had no intention of killing himself.

“There was no evidence on my reading of him having any …. suicidal thinking,” Prof McFarlane told the inquiry.

“Pte Kovco didn’t suffer from any particular psychological disorders or have any suicidal thoughts.”

The inquiry continues.

Australian killed in Lebanon

Sergeant Assaf Namer, whose family lives in Sydney, was born in Israel but moved to Australia with his family when he was 10.


According to Israeli media reports, the Australian citizen moved back to Israel two and a half years ago to enlist in the army.

He is the first Australian killed in the war between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas, which began two weeks ago and which has claimed nearly 500 lives.

NSW Jewish Board of Deputies chief executive Vic Alhadeff confirmed Sgt Namer’s death.

“We were extremely upset to hear about the death as we are at all casualties of this war,” Mr Alhadeff said.

Sgt Namer’s sister and mother left Sydney today on their way to Israel.

The Israeli newspaper Yediot Achronot said Sgt Namer was from Kiryat Yam, and was serving in the Golani division of the Israeli army.

Sgt Namer was due to be discharged from the army within a month and planned to settle down in Israel with his Tel Aviv-based girlfriend.

So far, 433 Lebanese and 51 Israelis have died in the conflict.


The Australian government offered its condolences to Sgt Namer’s family.

“This is the first Australian we can confirm has been killed in this fighting and it’s a sad thing that this has happened,” Foreign Minister Alexander Downer told reporters in Kuala Lumpur.

“Obviously we extend our condolences to the family and we will provide whatever consular assistance is necessary in these circumstances.”

The Australian Jewish News reported Sgt Namer had attended the Jewish high school Moriah College, at Queens Park in eastern Sydney, and sat for the HSC in 1997.

Rabbi Jeremy Lawrence, from the Great Synagogue in Sydney, said an email from Moriah College had been circulated today, telling the community that Sgt Namer had died fighting with the Israeli defence force.

“The boy who was killed is a former student of Moriah College who had gone back to live with his father in Israel,” Rabbi Lawrence said.

“He is remembered as a quiet student, a good basketball player – he played on the team – and a graphic artist.”

The statement, from Moriah College principal Roy Steinman, said: “He was a talented graphics artist and produced wonderful cartoons and images when computer graphics was in its infancy.

“Some years ago, Assaf took the decision to settle in Israel.

“Our heartfelt condolences go to his parents and family. We mourn with them.”

Moriah College is expected to hold a memorial service tomorrow.

A date for Sgt Namer’s funeral will be set once his mother and sister arrive in Israel.

Sgt Namer was born in the Israeli port city of Haifa and migrated with his family to Australia in 1992. He became an Australian citizen three years later in 1995.

The Yediot Achronot newspaper quoted Yaakov Peretz, the mayor of the village where Sgt Namer lived, as saying the soldier had not been forced to join the army, but had felt a duty to serve Israel.

“Although his life was in Australia, he was a Zionist who chose to come to Israel in order to do his part,” he said.

Labor also expressed its sympathy over the death.

“I’m deeply sorry to hear about the death of Mr Namer,” Opposition Leader Kim Beazley said.

“He was obviously fighting for something that he believed in.

“Our thoughts are with his parents, family and friends.”