Diana inquiry: Fayed fumes at 'snobs, vultures and bastards'

Diana inquiry: Key players called together for 'confrontation' as wild claims continue to cloud investigation
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The Independent Online
IT WAS a day of absurd contradictions. A day of long periods of calm. And one extraordinary outburst by Mohamed Al Fayed, in which he accused Frances Shand Kydd, the mother of Diana, Princess of Wales, of being an "English snob", who refused to talk to a "working class guy" like him.

It is now nine months since Diana died in the underpass beneath the Place de L'Alma in Paris. Yesterday's gathering at the Palais de Justice in Paris - a "general confrontation" of witnesses, participants and interested parties - was the nearest the world has yet come to a formal attempt to make sense the events of the night of 30-31 August 1997.

The 10 most notorious paparazzi in the world - but who can remember their names? - entered the Palais de Justice by a side door to avoid the waiting cameras. Mr Fayed, who has rubbished the official investigation from the beginning, spoke at first of a "very good hearing", chaired by a "fantastic" judge.

No side doors for him. He arrived in a cavalcade of four limousines with an entourage of 13 people, including his own photographer.

He re-emerged during the afternoon to lash out on all sides. The hearing had gone nowhere, he said. Mrs Shand Kydd, also present, was "a snob", "an English snob", who thought she was part of the Royal Family, and didn't "want to talk to people like me". The paparazzi were "vultures", who were mostly responsible for the crash; if it hadn't been a court room, he would have "hung them all". Only God could really say what happened: one day he would "open the box" and expose all "the bastards" who were responsible for his son's death.

The gathering - not a trial but part of the investigation - took place behind the closed doors of the Chambre des Criees, an ornate room on the first floor of the Palais de Justice, a room generally used to auction property seized by the French state. The master of ceremonies, in black gown and white forked collar, was Juge Herve Stephan, the investigating magistrate in charge of the Diana inquiry.

The idea was to hear the testimony of the nine press photographers, and one dispatch rider, formally suspected of being partly and indirectly responsible for the crash; and also suspected of behaving callously by taking close-up pictures afterwards.

Their accounts were being matched, face-to-face, with the recollections of eye-witnesses, policemen and ambulancemen. And also against the testimony of 200 pictures taken by the photographers themselves, before and after the crash.

Which pieces of evidence fitted together? Which accounts added up; which did not? Who is lying; or exaggerating? Or just mistaken?

Outside, the odd witness or the occasional defence lawyer would feed scraps of information to the waiting press. Then the press would feed the scraps to one another. It is to be hoped that the hearing made more sense than the scraps.

Apart from the witnesses, the paparazzi and a score of lawyers, only one other category of person was allowed into the room: the bereaved. Mrs Shand Kydd was there; so was Mr Fayed, father of Diana's companion, Dodi; so were the parents of Henri Paul, the chauffeur who drove the car on the fateful night, the man accused posthumously of driving a high-powered Mercedes while under the influence of large quantities of alcohol and anti-depressant drugs. It had originally seemed that the "general confrontation" - a frequent device in complicated judicial investigations in France - would signal the beginning of the end of the inquiry. Judge Stephan has always said that he would like to be finished in June.

However, one of the defence lawyers present, Maitre Jean-Marc Coblence, confirmed earlier reports that this would not now be possible. Delays in the minute, technical examination of the wreckage of the crashed Mercedes would prevent Judge Stephan from making a final report for "several months", probably until October, he said.

Was the hearing proving useful? Had anything new emerged? Maitre Coblence, speaking half way through the day, shook his head.

There were eight witnesses present, six men and two women. The only one who made himself readily available to the press - perhaps too readily - had a strange tale to tell: not one which fitted easily with any of the established, or half-established facts.

Jacques Morel, a 50-year-old retired sound engineer, said he had been driving through the tunnel in the opposite direction: there were photographers waiting by the tunnel entrance for the Mercedes to arrive, he asserted. Afterwards, he said, there were many more photographers - at least 20 - at the scene than the 10 present in the Palais de Justice.

Told of his comments, a defence lawyer waved his arms in exasperation. "Yes," he said, "There were special buses bringing photographers from the Ritz to the Place de L'Alma; at least two buses."

The French newspaper Le Parisien reported that Juge Stephan was more determined than ever to produce a comprehensive report which would nail every rumour and throw back into the sea every red herring raised by the world's media (and Mr Fayed).

The investigation continues.