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6YRS 128 DAYS; ..between Diana's death and inquest opening.

Byline: JANE KERR, Royal Reporter

THE six-year wait for an inquest on Princess Diana - and possible answers to the questions surrounding her death - is over.

A hearing to open in the New Year was announced yesterday by royal coroner Michael Burgess. A separate inquest on Dodi Al Fayed will begin on the same day, Tuesday, January 6.

That will be six years 128 days since their car crash deaths in Paris on August 31, 1997.

In that time, public dismay has grown at the failure to mount an official investigation in Britain.

Now inquests to be held in Westminster, London, and Reigate, Surrey, where Dodi lived and is buried, might solve once and for all the lingering mystery.

A French investigation - held behind closed doors - has blamed chauffeur Henri Paul's intake of drink and prescription drugs and said he was speeding.

He also died after his Mercedes smashed into a pillar in a tunnel under the Place de l'Alma.

A book by Diana's butler Paul Burrell, serialised in the Daily Mirror, posed further questions by revealing she feared a car accident.

She wrote 10 months before she died of "brake failure" and a "serious head injury", clearing the path for Charles to marry again.

This week Dodi's father Mohamed Al Fayed went to a Scottish court to try to win a public inquiry. He claims Diana, 36, and his son, 42, were being spied on by MI6.

The Mirror has learned from senior sources it is "highly unlikely" that Prince Charles or any other royal will be called to give evidence at the inquests. Both Buckingham Palace and the prince's HQ Clarence House have had meetings and offered to co-operate.

However, an inquest in Britain is unlikely to go much beyond establishing what happened six years ago and the cause of death.

This largely stems from the fact that an inquiry has already been held in France.

The only survivor, Dodi's bodyguard Trevor Rees-Jones, cannot recall any details.

Virtually all other witnesses, including paparazzi at the scene, cannot be compelled to testify.

Manslaughter charges against photographers who pursued the car or who took photos at the site have also been dropped.

Yesterday Mr Burgess, Coroner to the Queen's Household, said he would not be calling witnesses at the initial hearings.

The complexity of the situation meant final arrangements had "taken rather longer to complete than I would have wished". The coroner added: "At neither hearing will I be receiving any evidence from witnesses in person.

"I will, however, make a statement which will cover the purpose of the inquests, how they may be expected to be conducted and the nature and scope of evidence that I expect to receive."

Diana's will open at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre. Dodi's will start later in the day.

His father welcomed the news, with crucial reservations. Spokesman Chester Stern said: "The remit of a coroner's inquest is far too narrow. It's merely to determine the cause of death.

"Some people have said to me he's achieved a breakthrough but this doesn't affect what's happening in the court in Scotland.

"This requires open public scrutiny on a much broader scale than an inquest can offer."

Mr Al Fayed says an official statement denying MI6 tracking of Diana and Dodi was untrue.

He claims the US National Security Agency has confirmed that the princess was the subject of monitoring by American agents, possibly on behalf of MI6.

Part of the delay stemmed from a French law preventing release of papers abroad until all inquiries there are completed. A source said: "The Diana dossier is definitely closed."

Clarence House said yesterday: "We always understood the law required an inquest at some point." A hearing is stipulated for any "unnatural or violent death abroad" when the body is brought home.

A spokesman for Earl Spencer said: "The family have always said they would co-operate with any inquest."

10 Questions that must be answered

Was Mercedes driver Henri Paul really drunk? And if he was driving at over 80mph why was he not caught by a speed camera like other drivers on the road?

Did Diana receive sufficient medical treatment as quickly as possible?

Had she taken drugs?

Was she possibly pregnant?

Why did French police not protect evidence at the tunnel scene for longer?

Were the lights or CCTV cameras in the tunnel deliberately tampered with?

What caused the abnormally high levels of carbon monoxide in Henri Paul''s blood - was there a mix-up with his blood sample?

What part did the white Fiat Uno, allegedly driven by a paparazzi member, really play in the crash?

Were Paul and the paparazzi member chasing the car employed by MI6, as alleged by ex-spy Richard Tomlinson?

Was it really an accident? If not, who was it arranged fatal crash?

CAPTION(S):

DOOMED: Dodi and princess; RIDDLE: Was driver of Diana's crashed Merc really drunk?; RIDDLE: What part did white Uno actually play in crash?; RIDDLE: Di wrote of 'brake failure'
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Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Dec 19, 2003
Words:831
Previous Article:At last, a chance to get to the heart of the matter.
Next Article:LIBEL TRIAL: DAY 9: 20 WITNESSES WHO DISAGREE WITH BAILEY; 'HIS EVIDENCE IS WHOLLY UNRELIABLE'.


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