JANUARY 11, 2004
A reality check for the Paris-Dakar
In the light of Formula 1's plans to visit Bahrain in April, it is worth noting that the Paris-Dakar Rally has run into trouble in North Africa.
The Paris-Dakar Rally has always been fraught with danger but usually these have been the traditional dangers of the sport, although there are many other perils in the desert, not least landmines in Western Sahara left behind after the battles of the early 1970s. This year, in an effort to avoid troubled Algeria and parts of Mali and Mauritania, the rally organizers routed the event through Morocco, and western Mauritania.
Mauritania has become less stable in recent years as a result of the wars in the Middle East. It is believed to be a haven for Al-Qaeda operatives, who designated the area as a place to regroup if the US attacked Afghanistan after the attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001. Mahfouz Ould Walid, a Mauritanian known as Abu Hafs, a relative by marriage of Osama bin Laden, is one of the most-wanted Al-Qaeda leaders and is believed to be have been behind the recent attack on a synagogue in Istanbul and the attack on the UN headquarters in Baghdad in August.
Mauritania was victim of an abortive coup d'etat in June, led by forces unhappy with the government's imprisonment of Islamic leaders in the wake of the invasion of Iraq and President Maouya Ould Sid Ahmed Taya's decision to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. The coup was suppressed after one day of fighting and the coup leader Saleh Ould Hanenna, a former army colonel sacked for opposing Taya's policies, is still on the run, believed to be building up a rebel army in Mali.
This year the Mauritanian authorities gave assurances that the rally - which brings considerable revenue to the country - would be protected by government troops but trouble began when the rally arrived at the Mauritanian border and around 100 competitors were stopped by soldiers and ordered at gunpoint to pay $50 each. The rally continued to Nema but then, because of information received from intelligence sources, it was decided to cancel the stages between Nema and Mopti in Mali and that forced the cancellation of the next stage from Mopti to Bobo Dioulasso in Burkina Faso. Instead the competitors travelled south from Nema to Mali's capital Bamako on highways and then went on to Bobo Dioulasso where the rally is due to restart on Monday morning.
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