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Table Mountain fire trial gets witness testimony

A witness testified he had seen a Briton flick a burning cigarette onto dry grass, but under cross-examination there was some discrepancy.

The testimony came Tuesday, the opening day of the much-delayed trial of Anthony Cooper, accused of starting the January 2006 fire on one of South Africa's best known landmarks. Cooper is accused of culpable homicide and violating the National Forestry Act.

Cooper has pleaded not guilty to both charges. His attorney, Reuben Liddell, told the court Cooper tried to stomp out the fire started when a match he had used to light a cigarette flew out of control into the grass.

An elderly British tourist, Janet Chesworth, died of smoke inhalation. South African officials said the death toll would have been much higher if high winds had not closed the cable car transporting people to the mountaintop.

Taxi driver Craig Ward told the court he was parked near the lower cable car station waiting for possible customers. He noticed Cooper walking down the slope smoking and then saw that he had "flicked something" out of the car window on to the grass, according to the South African Press Association.

However, under cross-examination from the defense team, Ward conceded that he had merely assumed it was a burning cigarette butt.

Defense attorney Liddell told the court Cooper denied having flicked a cigarette butt from the window of his car. Cooper said he had lit a cigarette in his car, with the driver's window open, and that a flaming piece of the match had shot out of control into the grass.

Cooper denied having walked to his car smoking, Liddel said.

When a fire started, Cooper tried to stomp it out, and had called for help, but no one had responded. He then dialed an emergency number on his cell phone, which had activated the various agencies, including the fire brigade and the nature conservation department, SAPA quoted Liddell as saying.

The fire service and park wardens were quickly on the scene but by then it was too late.

Tuesday's hearing was later convened at the scene for an inspection. The case continues on Wednesday, when prosecutors were to call a second witness.