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French lawmakers on Wednesday observed a sombre minute's silence in memory of slain photojournalist Camille Lepage as the country mourned a precocious young talent cut down while pursuing her passion.
Aged 26, the British-trained photographer had begun to establish herself as a rising star in a ferociously competitive industry when she was caught up in a deadly shoot-out between rival militia in the Central African Republic, where she had spent recent months chronicling the impoverished country's sectarian bloodletting and its impact on the civilian population.
Lepage's body was recovered by French peacekeeping troops on Tuesday evening. She had been on an assignment with members of the "anti-balaka" Christian militia earlier in the week when they were ambushed by fighters linked to rival militia groups.
At least ten fighters died in the ensuing battle in the village of Gallo in the west of the former French colony.
French authorities on Wednesday opened a judicial investigation into the journalist's death while the UN Security Council condemned the killing and urged the Central African government to ensure that those responsible are brought to justice.
Friends and family paid tribute to a strong-willed character, described by her mother Maryvonne as "an exceptional girl," who was doing exactly what she wanted to do.
"Camille had a force of personality that meant she was not always easy to live with," her mother said. "But she knew what she wanted. She was passionate about what she was doing."
Fellow photographers questioned whether Lepage was a victim of a culture in which freelancers are obliged to take serious risks in order to keep their costs down -- in this case opting to travel along with players in the conflict.
Jean-Pierre Campagne, a veteran Africa reporter at AFP, says security in the continent's hotspots often depends on having an independent means of transport. "When you leave with them, as she did, you can't just say, 'okay, I want to stop here!'".
- 'She was so determined' -
At the time of her death, Lepage was working with Hans Lucas, a small Paris-based agency which helped her get her work published by major international media including the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Sunday Times and the Guardian.
"She first came to see us around two years ago on the recommendation from another photographer," said Hans Lucas director Wilfrid Esteve. "We looked at the work she had done and we immediately realised that here was someone who was going to explode in the coming years.
"Almost immediately after that, she told us she was leaving for South Sudan. She was so determined, she called our bluff!"
Among Lepage's clients in the world's newest country was AFP, whose East Africa photo chief Carl de Souza recalls a "very enthusiastic young woman who was keen to learn."
Born in Angers in the Loire Valley, Lepage left France as an 18-year-old to study journalism at Solent University in Southampton, England.
She had been in the Central African Republic since September of last year, staying on long after the country's collapse into chaos had slipped off the front pages.
Central Africa has been in crisis since mainly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power in a March 2013 coup, unleashing a cycle of sectarian violence that has left thousands dead and close to a million people displaced from their homes.
Despite a French-led international peacekeeping presence, the country remains deeply unstable with the potential for a resurgence of violence underlined both by the incident which resulted in the death of Lepage and a reported weekend massacre in which 13 people were burned alive.