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Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 December, 2003, 04:21 GMT
Bulgaria mourns its dead soldiers

By Nick Thorpe
BBC south-east Europe correspondent

Bulgaria is observing a national day of mourning for five soldiers killed in attacks in the Iraqi city of Karbala.

The men were among 19 killed and nearly 200 wounded in Saturday's bomb and mortar attacks in the city, 110 kilometres (68 miles) south of Baghdad.

The bodies of the five dead servicemen were to be honoured at a ceremony in the capital, Sofia, before being taken to their home towns for burial.

They were the first casualties among the 450 Bulgarian soldiers in Iraq.

The deaths have shocked the nation.

A destroyed vehicle outside Karbala's town hall
The troops died in a series of apparently co-ordinated attacks
Television and radio programmes were interrupted by the news and media coverage has been dominated by the fate of the dead and injured.

In addition to those killed, 26 other Bulgarian soldiers - serving under Polish command in the country - were also wounded in an apparently co-ordinated series of attacks on two military bases and the district governor's office in Karbala.

Bulgarian Prime Minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha said his country would keep its contingent in Iraq as a matter of principle.

But other commentators have sounded a more critical note.

One paper noted in a headline that Bulgarian soldiers are risking their lives in Iraq to earn $60 a day.

All are volunteers and there has been some speculation about soldiers due to go to Iraq in the new year pulling out of the new contingent.

But there is also praise for the prompt action of the Bulgarian troops who tried to stop the truck laden with explosives from approaching the perimeter wall of their base in the main Karbala attack.

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