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Threats cancel major off-road race

January 05, 2008|Geraldine Baum and Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writers

PARIS — After 29 consecutive years of an epic event that saw drivers enduring extreme heat and cold crossing the Sahara, organizers canceled the world's biggest off-road race Friday after an Al Qaeda-linked group threatened the 5,760-mile Dakar Rally.

Involving more than 500 car, truck, motorcycle and quad drivers from 50 countries, the rally had been scheduled to begin today in Lisbon and end Jan. 20 in Dakar, the capital of the western African nation of Senegal. Participants were already gathering in the Portuguese capital, and as recently as Thursday organizers were saying they were ready to go.

But the Paris-based Amaury Sport Organization abruptly reversed course Friday under pressure from the French government.

In recent days, French intelligence officials had become increasingly concerned after Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a North African group with ties to the global terrorist network, made explicit threats against the rally. The group was linked to the Dec. 24 killing of a French family vacationing in Mauritania. Eight of the 15 days of the race were to take place in Mauritania.

As it fights off a crackdown by North African authorities, the militant group has increasingly focused on international targets, hitting the United Nations headquarters in Algiers last month in a twin bombing attack that left 37 people dead.

Although the Mauritanian government had promised a 3,000-strong security force to protect participants as they wended their way across remote parts of the West African desert and scrubland, it would have been difficult to protect them against snipers or suicide bombers, experts said.

"You would need really incredible security precautions, and I don't think it's possible with the new techniques of attack, such as suicide bombings," said French security consultant Louis Caprioli, former anti-terrorism chief of the DST counter-intelligence agency.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said Friday that his ministry had warned organizers it was too dangerous to allow the contestants to make the trip. After meeting with officials of his ministry, the organizers decided not to take any risks.

"No other decision but the cancellation of the sporting event could be taken," the organizers said in a statement posted Friday on their website.

North African extremists have long had the race in their sights: They see a rare target of opportunity in a media-heavy incursion of Westerners in their vast and relatively lawless home turf, senior French anti-terrorism officials say. For years, fears of attacks have forced French and African security forces into cat-and-mouse games with extremists.

Nearly 50 people have died since the first race in 1979, including several caught in the cross-fire of African conflicts. Local tensions and terrorist threats have led organizers to cancel stages of the race, but never before has the event been called off.

Caprioli said the extremists want to show "they can chase out the infidels. The cancellation was wise. But it gives the impression that the terrorists have won."

Organizers were already pledging Friday that next year the race would be held.

"The Dakar is a symbol, and nothing can destroy symbols," they said in their Web statement. "The cancellation of the 2008 edition does not endanger the future of the Dakar."

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geraldine.baum@latimes.com

Baum reported from Paris and Rotella from Madrid.

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