PARIS - An attack linked to al-Qaida and terror threats against the Dakar Rally forced organizers to cancel the annual race on Friday, the eve of the 5,760-mile trek across North African desert scrubland and savannah.
It was the first time the automobile, motorbike and truck rally has been called off in its 30-year history. In a statement, organizers blamed "threats launched directly against the race by terrorist organizations." the Dec. 24 killings of a French family and international tensions.
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.
Mauritania's foreign minister criticized the decision to scrap the race.
"This decision has no relationship with the actual security situation in Mauritania, a country that has always been stable and peaceful," said Foreign Minister Babah Sidi Abdallah.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said he did not want to "stigmatize" Mauritania, but warned of the risks "in a very uncertain region and one crossed by the networks of al-Qaida in North Africa."
"We simply want those who risk a lot to benefit from our information," Kouchner told RTL radio. "We are warning them: It's dangerous."
Daniel Bilalian, head of sports at rally co-sponsor France Televisions, told Europe-1 radio there had been "direct threats aimed at the race by terror groups," without specifying.
Al-Qaida in North Africa, in a Dec. 29 statement posted on an Internet site that it often uses, criticized Mauritania's government for "providing suitable environments to the infidels for the rally." It did not directly call for attacks on the race or its participants.
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.
Rally director Etienne Lavigne only recently approved the Mauritanian stages after two stages planned for Mali were scrapped over concerns about al-Qaida's north Africa affiliate there.
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.
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."
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.
Those in the country's tourism sector decried the loss, calling France's reaction "exaggerated and disproportionate."
"The worries expressed by the French are unfounded," said Mohamed El Moustapha Ould Cheibani, who heads a tour agency in Atar, a city 270 miles north of the capital, Nouakchott. "It's like getting punched in the back of our tourism industry."
Associated Press writers Ahmed Mohamed in Nouakchott, Mauritania, and John Leicester in Paris contributed to this report.