French bloggers' Libya trip turns tragic

BENGHAZI, Libya - Irresponsible innocents abroad or courageous citizen journalists? A trip by six young French bloggers to the revolution in Libya turned to tragedy after one was left paralysed by a stray bullet in the shell-shocked city of Misrata.

"We didn't come here to cover a war, we just wanted to see a revolution like the one in Tunisia," one of the bloggers told reporters Friday, saying that they had expected the revolt to come to a swift end with the fall of Moamer Kadhafi.

The four men and two women travelled by boat in late March to Misrata, where fighting quickly intensified after Kadhafi's forces launched a deadly crackdown on protests inspired by regime-changing movements in Tunisia and Egypt.

The bloggers, aged between 24 and 26 who had met while studying in the northwestern French city of Rennes, decided to stay on to bear witness to the conflict because they said initially so few foreign reporters were in the city.

For weeks they they posted video images on the internet and filed blogs and reports to the French news website Rue89 about Misrata, a western city where hundreds have died since Kadhafi forces laid siege to it nearly two months ago.

But then a week ago one blogger, Baptiste Dubonnet, was struck down by a stray bullet.

"We were walking in the street and I suddenly saw that Baptiste had fallen. He was hit in the neck. There was a lot of blood and we rushed him to the hospital," one of his colleagues said at a press conference in Benghazi.

Attacks on Misrata's strategic port delayed his evacuation from the besieged city for several days and it was not until Thursday that he arrived in the eastern city of Benghazi after a 17-hour sea trip in an intensive care unit equipped by a specialized medical team organized by French authorities.

Dubonnet, who the bloggers said was from the city of Lyon, is being treated in a Benghazi hospital where medics told AFP he is paralysed from the chest down and is in a critical but stable state.

His colleagues, who refused to give their names at the press conference which they illustrated with a Powerpoint presentation of images of the suffering of the people of Misrata, said they had no regrets about coming to Libya.

Asked if it was irresponsible to stay in a conflict zone without medical insurance, without any training for such situations and with none of them able to speak Arabic, one female blogger responded: "I don't think so."

"Our presence gave moral support to the revolution," said another of the bloggers, a bearded young man who wore a lapel pin bearing the emblem of the Libyan revolution.

But a Western security expert looking after staff with an international media company in Libya expressed disbelief at the the French bloggers' actions.

"That's madness," he said on condition of anonymity.

"It's a case of individuals who have no hostile environment training or battle experience in any theatre going into an area that is well publicised as high risk."

News agencies, major foreign newspapers and broadcasters have been sending journalists to Misrata typically for stints of a week or two and sometimes with security advisers.

Two veteran war photographers, American Chris Hondros and Briton Tim Hetherington, died in the city after being hit in a mortar round, which also wounded two of their colleagues.

But Ned Parker, who has covered the Iraq conflict since it began in 2003 and who this weekend left Misrata after several weeks there as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, praised Dubonnet.

"He is a courageous journalist. He was chasing a story in the best journalistic tradition. He was shot by a stray bullet. It could have happened to anyone," he told AFP.

Dubonnet's colleagues, meanwhile, are waiting in Benghazi and complaining that the French authorities have not sent a military plane so their injured friend can be flown back to France for treatment at a better hospital.

They also accused French authorities of giving their names -- Soizic Crochet, Daphnee Catherine, Pierre-Nicolas Durepaire, Pierre Torres and Charles Torres -- to the media against their will.

The bloggers said that they had financed their Libya expedition themselves but that once back home in France they hope to be able to sell material from Misrata to the media.