After six months of hearings and testimony by more than 250 witnesses, a jury at a British inquest found yesterday that Diana, Princess of Wales, and her lover, Dodi al-Fayed, were killed by the negligent driving of their chauffeur and photographers who pursued their Mercedes-Benz into a Paris underpass more than 10 years ago.

Criminal charges were unlikely, however, because the incident happened in France outside the jurisdiction of British authorities.

The case has seized attention around the world with rumours, conspiracy theories and allegations swirling around the August 1997 collision that killed the woman Tony Blair, then prime minister, called the "people`s princess." Coming soon after her divorce from Prince Charles, Diana`s death inspired a wave of soul-searching among Britons that threatened their attachment to the monarchy.

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An earlier police inquiry found that Diana and Fayed had died in an accident as they sought to escape the paparazzi camped outside the Ritz Hotel in Paris, owned by Mohamed al-Fayed, Dodi`s father.

"The verdict is unlawful killing, grossly negligent driving of the following vehicles and of the Mercedes" carrying the couple, the jury foreman announced.

That was the verdict of nine of the 11 jurors. There was no indication why there were two dissenters.

All 11 agreed that the car slamming head-on into a concrete pillar rather than striking the wall on the other side was a key factor in their deaths. The jury also faulted Diana and Fayed for not buckling their seat belts.

During the hearings, the jury had been told that a verdict of unlawful killing was tantamount to one of manslaughter.

The verdict surprised those who had predicted the inquest would confirm the police assessment that the collision, which also killed the French driver of the car, Henri Paul, had been an accident.

But the jury resolved that the "crash was caused, or contributed to, by the speed and manner of the driver of the Mercedes and the speed and manner of the pursuing vehicles.``

Among the causes of recklessness, the panel found that Paul`s judgment had been impaired by alcohol.

Diana`s sons, Princes William and Harry, issued a statement expressing support for the verdict and thanking the jurors for their work.

"We agree with their verdicts, and are both hugely grateful to each and every one of them for the forbearance they have shown in accepting such significant disruption to their lives over the past six months," the princes said.

Mohamed al-Fayed, who had pressed for years for a public inquiry, said he was disappointed at the result, insisting that members of the royal family should have been called as witnesses.

"No one should be above the law," he said in a statement.

John Stevens, the former chief of London`s Metropolitan Police, said the verdicts vindicated the force`s two-year investigation.

The couple`s deaths came six weeks after romance bloomed while Diana and her two sons were guests of Harrods owner Mohamed al-Fayed in southern France.

British taxpayers have paid a heavy price. The cost of the inquest, including lawyers and staff assisting the coroner, has passed $6 million, and the Metropolitan Police says it spent $16 million on its two- year investigation.

But it may not be over. Al-Fayed`s aides weren`t ruling out an appeal.

AP, New York Times