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Kate Webb, at 64; reporter covered Vietnam War, Asia

Veteran foreign correspondent Kate Webb, in Agence France Presse's bureau in Jakarta. (file 2001/AFP)

SYDNEY -- Kate Webb, a pioneering journalist whose powerful reputation was forged on the front lines of the Vietnam War and who roamed Asia for nearly 35 years covering coups and strife from India to the Philippines, died Sunday. She was 64.

Ms. Webb, who found herself in the headlines in 1971 when she was captured in Cambodia and held prisoner by North Vietnamese troops, succumbed to bowel cancer in Sydney, her brother Jeremy Webb told the Associated Press yesterday.

Ms. Webb began a storied career as a foreign correspondent during the turmoil surrounding Indonesian president Sukarno's fall from power in the 1960s. In the next four decades, she was witness to some of Asia's most dramatic moments: the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in India, the mujahideen triumph in Afghanistan, the "people power" revolution in the Philippines, the fall of Chun Doo-Hwan in South Korea, Cambodia's "Killing Fields," East Timor's civil war, and Hong Kong's handover, among other stories.

But it was her work in Vietnam and Cambodia that created the legend of a rough and ready reporter, one of a handful of female war correspondents.

"There wasn't a story that she ever covered poorly, but it was her war reporting that drove her and incidentally turned her into an icon of her generation," said Alan Dawson, a colleague of Ms. Webb's at United Press International during the war years.

Ms. Webb, who was born in New Zealand and trained in Sydney, first went to Vietnam in 1967 and spent more than six years covering the war for UPI, building a reputation for brave, honest report ing and insightful writing.

After the war, she worked throughout Asia for UPI and later Agence France Presse. After covering the fall of the Suharto regime in Indonesia in 1998, she retired from journalism in 2001, saying she felt "too old to keep up with front-line reporting, and that was the only kind I liked."

Ms. Webb, who lived the hard-drinking, chain-smoking lifestyle of her journalistic generation, returned to her family's adopted home of Australia, where she lived in relative seclusion on the Hunter River north of Sydney.

Ms. Webb was born in 1943 in New Zealand and moved with her family to Australia's national capital, Canberra, as a child. She graduated from Melbourne University with a philosophy-related degree, but ended up as a cub reporter at the Daily Mirror, a Sydney tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch.

She quit the paper at age 23 and went to Vietnam, ending up with UPI. She became one of the few women to cover the war full time. Colleagues said she was courageous, empathetic, and dedicated.

"She never sought to be a role model or a trailblazer, but the duties were thrust upon her," Dawson wrote for the Bangkok Post this week. "She was only in it for the news."

In April 1971, she was among six people captured while covering a battle in Cambodia. Ms. Webb was given up for dead after officials said a body they had found and cremated was probably hers, prompting front page news reports and an obituary in The New York Times.

But after more than three weeks, she emerged from the jungle and phoned the UPI office in Phnom Penh, writing later about days spent crammed into stifling bunkers and all-night marches, with almost no food.

She struggled with the attention that came from the ordeal, preferring to be in the field reporting, or among her drinking buddies, rather than in the limelight.

"She had a raspy whisper of a voice that drew you in," said Paul Wedel, another Vietnam-era UPI colleague. "But she never worked at being interesting or being a character. Almost the reverse. She seemed to want to be ordinary and matter-of-fact; just get on with the job."

She survived a near-fatal bout of malaria after her release and faced death other times, too.

In Afghanistan around 1990, a militia commander accosted her in the lobby of a Kabul hotel and dragged her up to his room by her long tresses. Colleagues rushed to her aid, though not before the commander had bashed her head and pulled a large chunk of her hair out.

She also was in a motorcycle accident in Delhi that severely injured one of her arms and peeled off half her face. For weeks, she could not see or move, but refused to be evacuated out of India. She had a houseful of Afghan refugees to take care of.

Ms. Webb, who left behind a trail of lovers, never married and never had children. But her compassion was as legendary as her nose for trouble.

"It's almost appropriate that she died on Mother's Day," Financial Times correspondent Jack Burton said of Ms. Webb, who was godmother to his daughter. "She was an earth mother type always looking out for the underdog."

Born in New Zealand, she moved with her family to Australia when she was 8 and to Europe when she was 13. The trauma in her life was presaged in the death of her parents -- her father a political science professor, her mother an Asia historian -- in a car crash when she was a teenager.

"People always think I must be so tough to survive all this," Ms. Webb told an interviewer from the Foreign Correspondents Club of Hong Kong in 2002. "But I'm a real softie. But maybe that's what it takes -- you have to be soft to survive. Hard people shatter."

She moved to Hong Kong in 1973, then Indonesia the following year before returning to Vietnam to cover the evacuation of US personnel in 1975 that marked the end of the war.

Ms. Webb, who never married, will be cremated in Australia and her ashes scattered over the harbor in Wellington, New Zealand.

Material from Reuters was used in this obituary.