Dakar Rally canceled after terror threat

( AP ) - The annual Dakar Rally was canceled Friday on the eve of the race across the Sahara Desert because of terror threats and the recent killings of a French family in Mauritania blamed on al-Qaida-linked militants.

It was the first time in the 30-year history of the automobile, motorbike and truck race 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."

The race's central appeal - its course through African deserts, scrubland and savannas - is also its weak point, making it difficult to protect thousands of people as they cross remote regions.

"No other decision but the cancellation of the sporting event could be taken," organizers said.

France, where the race organizers are based, had urged the rally to avoid Mauritania after the four family members were killed in an attack blamed on a terror cell that uses the Mauritanian desert as a hideout.

Officials say the cell is linked to the Algeria-based al-Qaida in Islamic North Africa, which has claimed responsibility for a series of deadly attacks, including the Dec. 11 twin suicide bombings at U.N. offices and a government building in Algiers, which killed at least 37 people.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner praised the decision to cancel the rally.

"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," he told France-Info radio.

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. Several stages were also called off in 2004, reportedly because of terror threats in Mali.

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 were to take place in Mauritania. Some 550 car, truck and motorcycle drivers were expected for the 5,760-mile trek.

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."

French ministers had discussed safety at the rally at a Cabinet meeting on Thursday, and French officials had met with race organizers to discuss the risks.

Only the father of the slain family survived the Dec. 24 attack, in a town 150 miles east of the Mauritanian capital as the family picnicked on the side of a road.

That attack was followed up be another four 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.

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 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.

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