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Britain Starts Formal Inquest into Deaths of Diana, Dodi - 2004-01-06

Britain's formal inquest into the death of Princess Diana and her boyfriend Dodi al-Fayed opened Tuesday, nearly six and a half years after the pair died in a Paris car crash.

Against the backdrop of intense media interest, Coroner Michael Burgess formally opened the inquest into the death of Diana. He also opened a separate inquest Tuesday into the death of the princess' companion, Dodi al-Fayed, the son of the flamboyant owner of Harrod's department store in London.

Both died, along with French chauffeur Henri Paul, in the car crash in a Paris underpass on August 31, 1997. Under British law, inquests must be held whenever the bodies of British citizens who have died abroad are returned home for burial. The six and a half year delay in holding the inquest is partly due to the lengthy investigation by the French authorities and litigation that followed the crash.

Coroner Burgess will be focusing on the causes and the circumstances surrounding the deaths. It is this latter point that is of particular interest in Britain. Polls show that many Britons believe the princess was the victim of a conspiracy, perhaps within the royal family itself.

The coroner, too, noted there is a great deal of public speculation that the deaths of Princess Diana and her friend were not caused by a simple accident. He has appointed a London metropolitan police chief to investigate whether to look into the conspiracy theories as part of the inquest.

The two-year French investigation had concluded that deaths were the result of Henri Paul driving too fast while under the influence of alcohol.

In a related development, Britain's Daily Mirror newspaper Tuesday disclosed the full contents of a letter written by the princess to her butler, Paul Burrell, 10 months before her death, in which she expressed fears that an attempt would be made on her life and she believed it would be made to look like an auto accident.

The princess also wrote she believed that her former husband, Prince Charles, was behind the alleged plot.

Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan, whose paper serialized butler Paul Burrell's book, explained why the Mirror released Prince Charles' name. "You do not rush into these things and obviously we did not publish it at the time that we ran the original story about the existence of the letter, but events have moved quite quickly in the last 24 hours," he said.

"Paul Burrell is now giving the letter to the coroner for the inquest," he continued. "In my view, that makes a material difference to the likelihood of this becoming public, and in that sense, there is no longer a compelling reason for the Mirror not to publish the information."

Meanwhile, the move had taken Paul Burrell by surprise, as he told Sky News. "I am not happy about it," said Mr. Burrell. "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 known."

Coroner Burgess, who now has to sift through the mountain of evidence from French authorities, has adjourned the inquest until next year.