Dakar Rally cancelled because of terrorist fears

4th January 2008, Comments 0 comments

The 30th Dakar Rally, which was to have started Saturday in Lisbon, has been cancelled because of security fears, the Amaury Sports Organization (ASO) said in a statement released in the Portuguese capital.

4 January 2007

Paris/Lisbon (dpa) - The 30th Dakar Rally, which was to have started Saturday in Lisbon, has been cancelled because of security fears, the Amaury Sports Organization (ASO) said in a statement released in the Portuguese capital.

"Based on the current international political tension and the murder of four French tourists last December 24 linked to a branch of al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb, but also and mainly the direct threats launched directly against the race by terrorist organisations, no other decision but the cancellation of the sporting event could be taken by ASO," the statement by the rally organizers read.

On December 24, four French family members were shot to death in Mauritania by suspected Islamic terrorists who, according to authorities there, were linked to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

The group, which is based in Algeria, has carried out a number of bloody suicide bombings and has vowed to attack French interests and citizens.

"ASO's first responsibility is to guarantee the safety of all: that of the populations in the countries visited, of the amateur and professional competitors, of the technical assistance personnel, of the journalists, partners and rally collaborators," the statement added.

It is the first time in the 30-year history of the rally across the deserts of north Africa that the race has been cancelled.

The rally had been due to start in Lisbon tomorrow and finish in the Senagelese capital Dakar on January 20, and was set to hold stages in Mauritania between January 11 and January 19.

The race was cancelled a day after the government in Paris warned French citizens about travelling to Mauritania, where eight stages of the rally were to have been run, and cautioned organizers to consider calling off the race.

"The foreign ministry has firmly advised all French citizens not to travel to Mauritania," government spokesman Laurent Wauquiez said late Thursday. "What goes for the French public also applies to the organization of the Dakar Rally."

On Friday, Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner added his own warning, telling RTL radio that Mauritania was dangerous.

"We are warning (rally organizers): it is dangerous. It is a very unsafe region travelled by groups belonging to al-Qaeda (in the Islamic) Maghreb. I hope they will understand," Kouchner said.

French race director Etienne Lavigne had been optimistic about running the event after Mauritanian authorities had promised to mobilise some 4,000 police and soldiers to monitor the rally.

But organizers said that cancellation of the race did not threaten the future of the rally.

"The Dakar is a symbol and nothing can destroy symbols," ASO said. "The cancellation of the 2008 edition does not endanger the future of the Dakar. To offer, for 2009, a new adventure to all the off-road rally enthusiasts is a challenge that ASO will take on in the months to come."

However while there was understanding for the decision, there was also criticism.

Former German Touring Championship winner Ellen Lohr, who was due to compete for a fourth time, said: "It was wrong of the organizers to bend to the government. We should have started and at least gone through Morocco."

Five-time Dakar winner Ari Vatanen of Finland said: "The rally has become a hostage to the robbers, terrorists and fanatics."

The town of Portimao on the Algarve in southern Portugal, the second stage of the rally, meanwhile called Friday for 1.5 million euros (2.2 million dollars) in damages as a result of the cancellation. 4 January 2007

The town's mayor, Manuel da Luz, said he hoped the decision was not the result of "a political issue between the governments of France and Mauritania."

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