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Witnesses, Paparazzi, Al Fayed Converge on Paris Courthouse

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PARIS — All the key parties in the Princess Diana investigation gathered in a Paris courtroom today for a hearing that could clear the way for a long-awaited decision on whether photographers had a role in her death.

The Aug. 31 crash in a Paris traffic tunnel killed Diana, her boyfriend Dodi Fayed, and driver Henri Paul. More than nine months later, Judge Herve Stephan is still trying to find out who was at fault.

Together today for the first time were the photographers under investigation; eight witnesses to the crash; Mohamed Al Fayed, Dodi's father and the man who employed the driver Paul; and, according to defense lawyers, Diana's mother, Frances Shand Kydd. They were accompanied by a platoon of lawyers.

Bodyguard Trevor Rees-Jones, the sole survivor of the crash, was invited to attend but decided not to come.

Tests showed Paul was drunk at the time. But Stephan must still determine the responsibility of the paparazzi trailing Diana's Mercedes that night.

Nine photographers and one press motorcyclist have been placed under investigation, a step short of being formally charged. They have remained in legal limbo for almost a year while they continue to work.

In what was seen as a last-ditch effort to clarify their roles, Stephan was questioning each photographer one by one today.

Lawyers emerging from the courtroom described the process. Two hours into the hearing, the judge had already dealt with two photographers: Romuald Rat and Stephane Darmon. Each gave an account of their activities that night. The judge then questioned them, questioned witnesses as to what they had seen, then opened questions to other lawyers.

Stepping outside for a break, Al Fayed would say only: ``It's going fine. Great judge.''

Al Fayed is a civil party in the case, meaning he has access to documents and proceedings. Diana's mother was also there but said nothing, according to lawyer Virginie Bardet.

Ten witnesses were summoned, but only eight showed up. They included the first emergency doctor on the scene, Frederic Mailliez, and the first two policemen on the scene.

``It's very well organized. It's calm, thorough, and clear. I am persuaded it will serve a purpose,'' said lawyer Jean-Louis Pelletier, who represents photographers David Ker and Fabrice Chassery.

The photographers are being investigated on two charges: manslaughter, and failing to come to the aid of a person in danger. Many close to the case believe they will soon be exonerated, at least on the manslaughter charge.

Nikolas Arsov of the Sipa photo agency said the hearing was inconvenient _ he was supposed to be shooting pictures today at the French Open tennis tournament _ but he understood the need for it.

``It's the 40th time we have answered the same questions,'' Arsov said. ``It's annoying, but what can you do? They have to do their job.''

In contrast to previous hearings, all cameras were kept outside the grounds of the Palais de Justice. The gates were heavily guarded by police.

Al Fayed drew up to the main courthouse in a Mercedes, surrounded by about bodyguards. Al Fayed is tied to the case by his son's death and because Paul, the driver, was an employee of the Ritz Hotel, which Al Fayed owns.

``I hope that God will find the truth for us,'' he said today.

His spokesman, Lawrie Meyer, said ``This is a process to decide if the paparazzi should go to trial.''

Mr. Al Fayed ``is still a grieving parent and is here to find out what happened to his son,'' he said.

On Thursday, Al Fayed said he was ``determined to get to the truth'' about whether the crash was an accident or a plot to kill Diana and his son.

But French judicial sources said recently Al Fayed has backed off his contention that the crash stemmed from a plot, and now blames the paparazzi.

Although the probe is not complete, investigators long have believed that Paul's drunken condition and the Mercedes' excessive speed that probably caused the crash.

They are still looking for a white Fiat Uno believed to have brushed the Mercedes before it crashed. But they are said to have given up any real hope of finding it.

Tests are being conducted on the wrecked Mercedes Diana was traveling in, but aren't likely to be finished before October _ meaning the case can't be closed until then.

Investigators also recently conducted road tests on a race track near Paris to reconstruct the crash, but revealed no details of those tests.

(Copyright 1998 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.) APTV-06-05-98 1011EDT

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