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Howard Pays Tribute to Steve Irwin as Australian Icon

Australia's prime minister has paid tribute to conservationist Steve Irwin as a "great Australian icon," a day after he was killed by a stingray in a freak underwater accident.

Speaking Tuesday in parliament, John Howard praised Irwin as a remarkable and genuine individual, whose bizarre and tragic death left him distressed.

Irwin's body was flown back to his home region Tuesday on the Australian state of Queensland's Sunshine Coast. Hundreds of fans left flowers and other mementos at a makeshift shrine outside the Australia Zoo that he established near his home.

Irwin's death on Monday off Australia's northeastern coast was caught on video, and he can be seen pulling out the stingray barb that killed him.

His manager, John Stainton, describes the images captured by a documentary cameraman as "shocking."

The U.S. embassy in Canberra says Irwin was in many ways an unofficial Australian ambassador to the United States.

The embassy says Irwin's humor and sense of adventure represented what Americans find most appealing about Australia's way of life.

Australia's Queensland State Premier Peter Beattie says Irwin will be honored with a state funeral if his family agrees.

Stainton says the video of Irwin shows him snorkeling in shallow water about one meter above a stingray, when its spiked tail lashes upward and strikes him in the chest. He says Irwin pulled the barb out moments before losing consciousness.

Stingrays are a usually placid species of fish that only attack in self-defense. Marine experts say the stingray in this case may have felt threatened by the closeness of Irwin and his cameraman.

Oscar-winning actor Russell Crowe, who was a friend of Irwin's, said Monday that the 44-year-old television star was the Australian that many people aspired to be.

The Discovery Channel television network says it plans a marathon screening of Irwin's work and will establish a conservation fund in his honor.

During his "Crocodile Hunter" program, Irwin often engaged in daring behavior with animals while teaching audiences about wildlife conservation.

Some information for this report was provided by AFP, AP and Reuters.