Sahara Race Canceled After Tourists' Slaying

One day before the start flag was to wave, sending teams of race cars heading across the Sahara in the annual Lisbon-to-Dakar race, organizers canceled the event for security reasons after four French tourists were killed in Mauritania, the arid West African nation the race must cross.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

While the crisis in Kenya is big news, this next story was also worthy of headlines, across Africa on its western coast today.

(Soundbite of TV broadcast)

Unidentified Woman: (French spoken)

BLOCK: The Dakar Rally, one of the toughest events in the world of motor sports, has been canceled. It was called off because of terrorists and security concerns in the country of Mauritania, which is the host of eight stages of the race. The desert endurance race was due to start in Lisbon tomorrow. Destination - the Senegalese capital, Dakar.

That's where NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is based.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON: Dakar Rally contestants assembled in Lisbon were bitterly disappointed by this message from the organizers at a hurriedly convened news conference.

(Soundbite of news conference)

Mr. ETIENNE LAVIGNE (Organizing Director, Dakar Rally): (French spoken)

QUIST-ARCTON: Etienne Lavigne, the organizing director, announced that this year's Dakar Motor Rally had been called off at the 11th hour. He then read a statement explaining why.

Mr. LAVIGNE: (French spoken)

QUIST-ARCTON: With direct terrorist threats targeting the event, the organizers said it was too dangerous to risk the lives of competitors and everyone else. The decision to cancel the Dakar Rally was taken in consultation with the French government. This was after four Frenchmen were shot dead in Mauritania just before Christmas. A shocking attack compounded by reports linking the gunmen to a terrorist network affiliated to al-Qaida; that sent alarm bells ringing in Paris and other Western capitals.

Race drivers and bikers were scheduled to ride across the wind-blown Sahara Desert in Mauritania. The cancellation of the Dakar Rally is a blow to the West African nation, which is trying to promote desert tourism. The high-profile rally was an ideal international showcase and a major media event.

Mauritania's tourism minister, Madine Ba.

Mr. BA MADINE (Minister of Tourism, Mauritania): (French spoken)

QUIST-ARCTON: The minister said Mauritania's initial reaction was disbelief and deep disappointment. He noted that only last week, the Mauritanian government had met and given guarantees of reinforced safety and security measures which seemed to satisfy the rally organizers, so he couldn't understand what had changed.

The financial implications are huge for the cancellation of the multimillion dollar annual motor race. Ian Rochelle was in Lisbon waiting to compete in the Dakar Rally.

Mr. IAN ROCHELLE (Competitor, Dakar Rally): Of course, there's obviously an awful lot of money, but it's not just about the money, it's the time, effort and passion that our friends and family have put into going up here. It's very devastating. We're just walking out of the press conference now, and it feels like we were in a state funeral with thousands and thousands of people with long faces. It's just devastating news.

QUIST-ARCTON: Here in Senegal where the Dakar rally was due to finish on January the 20th, there are mixed feelings about the race. For 30 years, anti-rally campaigners and critics in Africa have lobbied to have it stopped. They cite environmental damage and the number of children knocked down each year by a noisy and ostentatious procession of drivers and support vehicles riding rough across West Africa.

Terrorism was never the issue, but it appears that this year, the specter of al-Qaida has succeeded where the activists failed - getting the Dakar rally scrapped, at least for 2008.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Dakar.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

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