Asia Crisis

Canada accused of skimping on Afghan funeral costs

(Changes date of Dinning's death in second last paragraph to April 2006 from May)

OTTAWA, May 30 (Reuters) - Canada, trying to tackle another controversy involving its military mission to Afghanistan, ordered a probe on Wednesday into reports that Ottawa had broken promises to pay the funeral costs of those killed in action.

Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor, who assured Parliament on Monday he had already ordered that all regular funeral costs be covered, said it was "with considerable distress" he had learned some families might not have been reimbursed.

"If confirmed, this would indicate that my direction was not followed and I can assure you that this will be dealt with accordingly and corrected as soon as possible," O'Connor told a hastily-arranged news conference.

The reports are yet more bad news for the beleaguered minister, who in March had to formally apologize for misleading Parliament over Taliban suspects captured by Canadian troops and transferred to Afghan authorities.

Canada, which has 2,500 soldiers in the southern city of Kandahar, has lost 55 troops since sending a military force to Afghanistan in 2002. Recent polls show a majority of Canadians oppose the mission.

Opposition legislators regularly demand the resignation of O'Connor on the grounds that he is incompetent.

O'Connor called the news conference shortly after it emerged that the parents of soldier Matthew Dinning planned to reveal that the military had covered less than half the cost of the funeral for their son, who was killed last year.

"We stand here today telling you that we have not been fully reimbursed for Matthew's funeral costs, despite (the fact) that Mr. O'Connor stood up in the House of Commons and told the Canadian people the exact opposite," Dinning's father Lincoln told a news conference.

O'Connor's remarks "attack our character and credibility", added Dinning, who stopped at one point to blink back tears.

Current military regulations allow for a stipend of C$4,675 ($4,370) to cover burial costs. The average cost of a funeral in Canada is between C$8,000 and C$10,000 and O'Connor said the stipend would be increased.

"It seems like the government has lots of money for certain things to do with the war in Afghanistan ... yet they don't have any money when it comes to dealing with grieving parents and family members of fallen soldiers," Dinning said.

A Pentagon spokesman said the families of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq or Afghanistan received payments of up to $8,800 to cover funeral expenses.

Dinning, killed by a roadside bomb in April 2006, served as part of the bodyguard detachment when Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited Kandahar last year.

Harper's Conservatives won the January 2006 election in part on a promise to boost military spending and treat the armed forces better.

$1=$1.07 Canadian