Rally faces new threat on old route

Posted: Thursday, January 08, 2004

DAKAR, Senegal Braving the motorcycle-swallowing dunes, the bone-crunching crashes and the occasional camel in the road, drivers of the Paris-Dakar rally faced a new threat Wednesday: terrorism.

Saharan nations pledged thousands of troops to guard against any attacks, by bandits or terrorists, along a redrawn route that skirts the desert home of Islamic extremists linked to al-Qaida.

In 2003, the rally's 25th anniversary, it skipped Paris and Dakar for the first time, as well as all of West Africa, because of fears over security.

This year, organizers, competitors and hosts are determined to get the Paris-Dakar rally back on track.

After all, ''it's called the Dakar,'' said Roger Kalmanovitz, a race spokesman accompanying the rally along its 6,920-mile route down two continents. Competitors from 40 countries this year race a mixture of 4x4 vehicles, buggies and motorcycles.

The decision to bring Paris-Dakar back through West Africa to Senegal's capital was taken after a poll of competitors, which is at a 14-year high of 607 entrant vehicles, Kalmanovitz said.

''The heat, the people who line the track, who are exuberant in a way you don't see anywhere else it's this ambiance that is unique to West Africa,'' Kalmanovitz said by phone from a stopping point in Ouarzazate.

The race made its first run in 1978, launched by France's Thierry Sabine after he became lost in the Libyan desert and was so enraptured by the experience he made it an annual event. Sabine died when his helicopter crashed in the 1986 race.

Drivers this year began in snowy France on New Year's Day. Japan's Hiroshi Masuoka, going for his third straight win, has the overall lead after Wednesday's seventh stage.

From Europe, the course undulates across the dunes and canyonlands of West Africa, crossing Morocco, Mauritania, Mali and Burkina Faso under the eyes of lone, turbaned herdsmen on hilltops or curious children on mules.

Competitors will finish Jan. 18 outside Dakar at Lac Rose, or Pink Lake, which takes its unique color from a type of algae.

On Wednesday, the souped-up vehicles and their banged-up drivers already bearing taped ribs and stitches from crashes during the seven previous days jolted along the longest stage of the route, 656 miles.

At the border, they crossed into Mauritania straddling Arab and black Africa on the Sahara's southern edge. African and Arab traders were waiting.

Nearly 20 jets and 30 helicopters carry the vast, movable city of the rally from stage to stage.

In 2003, racers bypassed black Africa entirely, skimming a northern route across Libya into Egypt instead. Organizers at the time cited conflicts in Central African Republic and Congo countries as far from Dakar as Ukraine is from Paris.

To help bring the rally back, Mauritania's Arab-led government promised protection along the route in the country. Security sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the force would number 5,000.

In Mali, the rally's next stop, 800 armed military and paramilitary forces will guard the way.

''We have taken the maximum measures so that the event takes place in the best conditions,'' Mali national rally support coordinator Dramane Diarra told The Associated Press.

Bandits robbed rally participants at gunpoint in Mauritania in 1999. But the new measures have as much to do with international terrorism.

The route will skip Algeria, home to an Islamic extremist group ranked among the most threatening of those linked to al-Qaida. Algeria blamed the group for the 2003 kidnapping of about 25 European tourists, one of whom died before the captives were freed.

This year, racers also will steer clear of northern Mali and of northern Mauritania, where the government is combating what some outside security experts say are al-Qaida cells.

Moulaye Najim is director of the ''Hot Spots'' weekly, which surveys crisis points in French West Africa.

''The problem is this zone bordering the three countries has always served as a redoubt for criminals, bandits and recently for terrorists,'' Najim said.

AP writers Ahmed Mohamed in Mauritania and Brahima Ouedraogo in Burkina Faso contributed to this report.

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