Car swap fuels mystery surrounding Diana's death

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The Independent Online

Conspiracy theories surrounding the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, were fuelled yesterday after it emerged that the car in which she was meant to have travelled failed to start.

Conspiracy theories surrounding the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, were fuelled yesterday after it emerged that the car in which she was meant to have travelled failed to start.

Diana, 36, and her 42-year-old lover Dodi Al Fayed, instead entered a nearby Mercedes driven by the chauffeur Henri Paul before all three were killed after crashing in a Paris underpass. The driver was later revealed to be three times over the legal alcohol limit.

The last-minute switch in cars came to light with the release of official documents by the Cabinet Office under the Freedom of Information Act, which included correspondence between officials in the aftermath of the event.

It was in a memo sent to the Prime Minister a few hours after the Princess was killed on 31 August 1997 that it was first suggested that the car in which she had been expected to travel had broken down.

The document, whose author was not revealed, read: "The Princess and Dodi al Fayed arrived at the Paris Ritz yesterday afternoon. When they left the hotel late last night they were surrounded by a number of journalists. They tried to leave quickly but the first hire car failed to start. The second car then left the hotel at speed."

A second document released yesterday corroborated the claim of a broken down car. Signed "Jay", it was sent from Paris on the same day to Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, who was in Singapore. The British ambassador to France at the time was Sir Michael Jay.

Describing the couple's departure from the Ritz, it read: "Their getaway car failed to start, they got into another nearby car driven by a Ritz driver."

However, conflicting accounts appeared in a third document also released yesterday, which claimed that the couple had entered the car in a bid to avoid paparazzi photographers.

It was in a document sent by Sir Michael to the Foreign Office on 23 September that it was claimed that the couple had switched cars as part of a "last-minute change of plan aimed at diverting the paparazzi".

In the same document, it describes how Mohamed Al Fayed, the owner of Harrods and the father of Dodi, instructed a UK-based pathologist to challenge the results of tests showing high levels of alcohol in blood samples from the driver Henri Paul. As a result, a third test confirmed the alcohol level as well as revealing that Paul had been taking anti-depressants.

Amid the flurry of correspondence between Paris and London in the aftermath of the accident, concerns about the impact on the diplomatic relationships between the country were also raised.

One concern focused on the appointment of a senior police officer to liaise between UK coroners and French investigators amid fears it would raise the "risk of media suggestions" that "the UK had concerns about the French enquiry".

Sir Michael said he had been informed the French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin wanted to return from La Rochelle to pay his last respects to the Princess. He wrote that "paying last respects was not a strong British or Anglican tradition".

In the event, Chevenement and Jospin, as well as a series of other dignitaries, visited the Pitie Salpetriere hospital where Diana died.

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