Fear of al-Qaida attack cancels Dakar Rally

Race across Sahara Desert cut for the first time in 30 years due to large security risks.

dakar 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
dakar 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
The annual Dakar Rally was canceled Friday on the eve of the race because of terror threats and the recent slaying of a French family in Mauritania that was blamed on al-Qaida-linked militants. It was the first time in the 30-year history of the automobile, motorbike and truck race across the Sahara Desert that it has been called off. In a statement, organizers blamed international tensions, the tourists' Dec. 24 murders and "threats launched directly against the race by terrorist organizations." "No other decision but the cancellation of the sporting event could be taken," they said. France, where the race organizers are based, had urged the rally to avoid Mauritania after the slaying of the four family members in an attack blamed on a terror cell that uses the Mauritanian desert as a hideout. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner praised the decision. "In our opinion, in a complicated geographical context - and above all in a context of insufficient security - it seems very wise to have chosen security, and I commend them for it," he told France-Info radio. The race, organized by the France-based Amaury Sport Organization (ASO), had been due to start in Lisbon, Portugal, on Saturday and finish in Dakar, Senegal, on Jan. 20. Eight of the stages had been set to take place in Mauritania. Some 550 car, truck and bike drivers were expected for the 9,270-kilometer (5,760-mile) trek. The race's central appeal - its course through African deserts, scrubland and savannas - is also a weak point for security, making it difficult to protect thousands of people as they traverse such remote regions. Cyril Neveu, a five-time Dakar winner in the motorcycle category, acknowledged that the race could have been targeted by terrorists. "It is a big caravan of more than 3,000 people," he told French broadcaster I-Tele. He said he respected the organizers' decision but added: "Many are going to be disappointed." "Providing security from the first to the last competitor is an onerous job," Neveu added. "One cannot say that there was zero risk." In the past, terrorism fears have forced organizers to cancel individual stages or reroute the race. In 2000 several stages were scrapped after a threat forced organizers to airlift the entire race from Niger to Libya to avoid danger zones. Several stages were also called off in 2004, reportedly because of terror threats in Mali. French ministers had discussed safety at the rally for the 2008 race at a Cabinet meeting on Thursday, and French officials had met with race organizers to discuss the risks. "The ministry strongly warns all French citizens against going to Mauritania until further orders," government spokesman Laurent Wauquiez said Thursday. "That goes for all French (people), as well as the organization of the Lisbon-Dakar rally." Only the father of the slain family survived the Christmas Eve attack, in a town 250 kilometers (150 miles) east of the Mauritanian capital as the family picnicked on the side of a road. That attack was followed by another days later, when three Mauritanian soldiers manning a checkpoint were killed. Mauritania is a largely peaceful Islamic republic that has been rocked by the back-to-back attacks. Authorities have blamed a terror "sleeper cell" linked to the Algeria-based al-Qaida in Islamic North Africa for the murders of the family. Al-Qaida in Islamic North Africa claimed responsibility for the killing of the soldiers in an audio tape released to Al-Arabiya TV station. The group emerged from an alliance between Osama bin Laden's international terrorist network and an Algerian Islamist movement known as the Salafist Group for Call and Combat. It has claimed responsibility for a string of recent suicide bombings in Algeria, including Dec. 11 twin truck bombings at UN offices and a government building that killed at least 37 people. The Mauritanian government had announced last week that it would mobilize a 3,000-man security force to ensure the race's safety. The country's foreign minister on Friday complained that canceling the race was not justified. "We have taken every measure to ensure that the rally goes forward without incident," Foreign Minister Babah Sidi Abdallah told RTL television station. Mauritania's police force has been tracking the killers of the four tourists, recovering the car they used and arresting a woman who allegedly helped them secure a boat to cross into neighboring Senegal.