Top officer to investigate Diana death 'speculation'

But coroner adjourns inquest till 2005 after brief opening statement
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The Independent Online

Britain's most senior policeman is to investigate the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, it was announced today.

The Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir John Stevens has been asked by the royal coroner to make inquiries into speculation that the deaths of Diana and her lover Dodi Fayed were not the result of a straightforward traffic accident.

The coroner Michael Burgess made the announcement as he formally opened and adjourned the inquest into the death of Diana. He said the full hearing would take place next year.

Dodi Fayed's father, the Egyptian-born billionaire Mohammed al Fayed who believes his son and Diana were murdered, has repeatedly called for a full public inquiry into the deaths and had said a coroner's inquest was too narrow.

"It's absolute black and white, horrendous murder," Al Fayed told reporters following the formal opening of the separate inquest into his son's death. That inquest was similarly adjourned.

The inquest into the princess's death finally opened in London this morning more than six years after she was killed in a car crash in Paris in 1997.

The proceedings at the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre in London, marked the start of the first official public hearing held in Britain into the crash in the Pont d'Alma tunnel in Paris.

Opening the proceedings, Mr Burgess said: "The purpose of this morning's hearing is to open formally the inquiry into the death of Diana, Princess of Wales."

A court clerk then read a list of personal details about Diana and described her death in the 1997 crash.

Opening his statement, Mr Burgess said that shortly after midnight in the early hours of Sunday, August 31, 1997, in central Paris there was a car crash and the two rear seat passengers together with their driver received injuries that resulted in their deaths.

The passengers' bodies were brought back to England later that day.

Announcing the police probe, he told the hearing: "I am aware that there is speculation that these deaths were not the result of a sad, but relatively straight forward, road traffic accident in Paris. I have asked the Metropolitan Police Commissioner to make inquiries. The results of these inquiries will help me to decide whether such matters will fall within the scope of the investigation carried out at the inquests."

Mr Burgess went on: "The police in England will be asked to see and interview

on my behalf those who are identified as possible witnesses to find out the

extent of their evidence and whether it is relevant to the English inquest.

"Only once that process has been completed can I consider who can help the inquest process by attending as witnesses."

He said the circumstances of the deaths were unprecedented in that they not only happened abroad but were followed by an "extremely lengthy" and detailed French judicial investigation which was only now drawing to a close.

He said it would have been "desirable" for the inquests to have been heard and completed long ago but that was not possible because the available evidence which might have been heard at any inquest was limited.

"It was also known that more evidence would be available from the French authorities in due course.

"Neither the British police nor I as an English coroner have the same power or authority to carry out an investigation in France so the key to taking the English inquest process forward is, in the first place, unrestricted access to the fruits of the French investigation."

The hearing took place as a senior member of the Royal family who Diana believed was plotting to kill her in a car crash was named by the Daily Mirror newspaper.

The princess's allegation was made in a letter written 10 months before she died.

The letter, which was not mentioned in today's proceedings, was included in the book A Royal Duty by her former butler Paul Burrell last year, but was previously blanked out by the publishers Penguin and the Daily Mirror, which serialised the work.

The relevant passage read: "** ******* is planning 'an accident' in my car, brake failure and serious head injury..."

The newspaper said Mr Burrell was prepared to hand over the letter to the coroner Mr Burgess.

But Mr Burrell today condemned the decision.

Speaking to Sky News outside his home in Farndon, Cheshire, he said: "I'm not happy about it. I only learned about it late last night and it was always my intention never to publish that name. I never ever wanted it to be published."

Mirror editor Piers Morgan said he was made aware in the last 24 hours by Mr Burrell that the coroner had formally approached him twice for the letter.

He said Mr Burrell had indicated that he would be handing it over.

He said the letter was not going to be censored and therefore the information was going to be in the public domain at the inquest.

"At that point I think any newspaper that was aware of this kind of information has a duty to publish it and the situation changed.

He added: "This morning Paul Burrell was not aware of what we were doing. I knew he would not be very happy about it because he has always tried to keep this information suppressed.

"But I am afraid if a letter goes to a coroner for an inquest containing this kind of information it will come out."

He said the letter was "utterly sensational".

"Is it preposterous? Probably. I just don't know.

"What I do know is that thankfully we finally have an inquest where perhaps we can finally lay to rest all these conspiracy theories."

Diana, 36, and 42–year–old Ehmad Al Fayed, nicknamed Dodi, were killed with chauffeur Henri Paul when their Mercedes crashed in a Parisian underpass on August 31 1997.

They were pursued by paparazzi photographers after leaving the Ritz Hotel for Mr Fayed's apartment.

A two–year investigation in France blamed Paul for losing control of the car because he was high on drink and prescription drugs and driving too fast.

Dodi Fayed's father Mohamed al Fayed has waited more than six years for the first official public hearings in Britain into the deaths of the couple.

As he arrived at the inquest, Mr Al Fayed said: "This is what we have been waiting for for six years. At last, I hope we can see the light."

Speculation that the couple were murdered by MI6 has circulated for years with Mr al Fayed insisting they were assassinated by the British secret service.

The Harrods owner attended this morning's hearing with his legal team, including barrister Michael Mansfield QC.

The Egyptian–born millionaire attempted and failed to overturn Judge Stephan's ruling that manslaughter charges against paparazzi photographers and a press motorcyclist following the car should be dismissed.

His campaign at the Court of Session in Edinburgh for a public inquiry in Scotland into the deaths is still being considered.

In July 2000, he also lost a High Court case in which he called for Diana and Dodi's inquests to be held together.

The opening of Dodi Fayed's inquest will take place this afternoon in Wray Park, Reigate, in the county of Surrey where he lived and is buried.