Diana crash was an accident, says judge

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THERE WILL be no manslaughter charges against press photographers who pursued Diana, Princess of Wales, on the night she died, according to leaks of a draft report of the official investigation into the crash.

Nor will there be any legal action against officials at the Ritz Hotel, in Paris, who allowed Diana's party to leave in a car driven by a drunk and unqualified driver.

Judge Herve Stephan, the man who led the pounds 6m investigation, will recommend, however, that lesser charges of failing to assist victims of an accident should be brought against three of the photographers who behaved callously at the crash scene 17 months' ago.

The draft report, which must go to the lawyers of all parties involved before being finalised, says the accident cannot be blamed - in the strictly legal sense - on any living person. It places most of the blame on the "excessive speed" and "poor handling" of the driver, Henri Paul, who died in the crash. But Judge Stephan says the accident was partly caused by the presence of a Fiat Uno, travelling at much lower speed, at the entrance to the underpass where the crash occurred.

He also speculates - one of the few surprises in the report - that one or two press photographers on motorbikes may have indirectly contributed to the accident by drawing alongside the armoured Mercedes just before the crash. This could, he says, have forced Mr Paul to continue into the tunnel, rather than taking a slip road to the right.

All the more outlandish theories about the accident - that it was an assassination, or a suicide by Mr Paul, or that the motorbikes forced the Mercedes off the road - are considered, and formally rejected, by the report, which, with technical annexes, runs to 5,000 pages.

The investigation was intended to decide whether or not charges should be brought against the nine photographers and one press dispatch rider arrested after the crash.

Judge Stephan recommends that possible manslaughter charges should be dropped but that charges of failing to help the victims should be brought against three of the pursuers, including Romuald Rat, the man who admitted opening the door of the crashed Mercedes and taking the pulse of the dying Diana.

There has been criticism in France and Britain of the length and cost of the investigation. In private, Judge Stephan has blamed the extraordinary levels of public interest and the red herrings thrown up by press speculation.

He felt duty bound to investigate every rumour and blind alley and to order the most comprehensive forensic tests ever carried out on a crashed vehicle in France.