Inquest into 2004 French fishing boat disaster opens in London

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A coroner's inquest opened in London this morning into the mysterious sinking of a French fishing trawler 17 years ago, Although the French justice system closed the case in 2016, the victims' families are persuaded that a military submarine may have been the cause of the tragedy.

On the 15 janvier 2004, the Bugaled Breizh (child of Brittany) sunk off the coast of Lizard Peninsula, in the south west of England.

"Come quickly, I'm sinking," were the last words the captain said on his radio, in a bid to attract the help of another fishing boat which was located a few minutes away.

By the time the other fishing boat arrived on the scene, the Bugaled Breizh had sunk with all five crew members on board.

Two of the bodies were taken by search and rescue helicopter to Cornwall, another was taken to France and two were never recovered.

Although a cause of the tragedy has never been legally determined, two main theories exist.

One points to a fishing accident, with the boat being pulled down by its nets which got caught on something, or that of a submarine which got caught up in the boat's cables and dragged the boat under.

Sank in '37 seconds'

Dominique Launay, president of the association SOS Bugaled Breizh says that only the force of something like a submarine could have caused the boat to sink so quickly.

"The vessel sank in 37 seconds, so it would need a considerable force to pull down a boat 24 metres long," he recalls when an appeals court heard the case in 2015.

Brittany police said that the sinking happened a day before Nato military exercises officially began in the area.

But the British Ministry of Defence denies claims a Royal Navy submarine HMS Turbulent was involved, maintaining that the submarine was docked at Plymouth on the day of the accident.

Commander Andrew Coles who was in charge of the submarine at the time will be heard during the inquest on 12 October.

An appeals court in France undertook an investigation to try to identify what US submarines were in the vicinity at the time, however this was overturned in 2014.

France's top judicial court, the Court of Cassation, said in 2016 there was no evidence to support the submarine claim, nor that it was a fishing accident.

Defence secrets

However, doubts remain concerning two other submarines which may have been operating at the time of the sinking.

Declassified American military documents made available after the French court decision revealed that the USS Rickover was present in the English Channel at the time, on an anti-terror mission.

And the Dutch submarine Dolphin was also reportedly present in the region at the time but the Dutch government have refused to confirm this information.

The British inquest which opens on Monday, at the Old Bailey in London, is not a trial designed to assign blame, rather to elucidate a mystery into the exact cause of death of the fishermen. It will involve a judge, the British Ministry of Defence, the coast guard and families of the victims.

In March this year, Judge Nigel Lickley QC, acting as coroner, said the "long-delayed" inquest would be a "full, fair and rigorous investigation".

He added he was "conscious the families want it brought to a conclusion".

The French court of Cassation has until next year to reopen the case if further evidence can be established.

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