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British inquest into death of Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed opens

The British inquest into the death of Princess Diana and her companion Dodi Fayed opened Tuesday with the aim of officially deciding, once and for all, what happened in their car crash in Paris a decade ago.

The likelihood that it really will stamp out the rumors and conspiracy theories that have swirled around that one-car accident in Paris, however, seems remote. Neither is it likely that Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles will testify, as Fayed's father hopes.

Police in France and Britain concluded that chauffeur Henri Paul was drunk and lost control of the couple's speeding Mercedes, which smashed into a pillar at the Pont d'Alma tunnel on Aug. 31, 1997.

Paul died along with Diana, 36, and Fayed, 42; bodyguard Trevor Rees-Jones was the sole survivor.

French courts absolved paparazzi, who were chasing the couple, of responsibility for the crash.

Former London police chief John Stevens led an investigation that concluded there was no substance to claims by Mohamed al Fayed, Fayed's father, that the couple were victims of a conspiracy including the queen's husband Prince Philip and the security services.

That has not satisfied everyone, especially al Fayed.

"I believe my son and Princess Diana have been murdered by the royal family," al Fayed said outside the court.

But a coroner, or a coroner's jury, has no authority to blame any individual for a death. Its role in an inquest is to determine who died, when and where, and how.

"How" is the contentious part, and the jury is expected to hear testimony about the deaths for as long as six months. The inquest predictably attracted so much attention that court officials built an annex to accommodate the swarms of journalists.

Lord Justice Scott Baker, who is presiding as an assistant deputy coroner for Inner West London, has shown some impatience with al Fayed's legal team in preliminary hearings.

But al Fayed, as one of the "interested parties" to the inquest, and his legal team will have an opportunity to explore the conspiracy theory over the coming months.

It is because al Fayed challenged Justice Baker's predecessor that the case is being heard by a jury, rather than by a judge alone.

Cole said that al Fayed hopes that the queen, Prince Philip and Prince Charles will testify.

He noted that the queen did intervene five years ago to stop the theft prosecution of Diana's butler, Paul Burrell.

The queen informed prosecutors that she was aware that Burrell had possession of some of the items in question, but she did not testify in person.

The world's fascination with the princess may have ebbed since the explosion of grief that followed her death, but this year's 10th anniversary brought a new spate of books and documentaries.

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