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France weighs cancelling Dakar rally after suspected terror attack

France is considering cancelling the Dakar rally after an explosion in Saudi Arabia that badly injured a French driver and prosecutors are investigating as a suspected terror attack, the foreign minister said Friday. 

French prosecutors said Tuesday that they had opened a terror probe over a December 30 blast targeting a car in Jeddah, which left 61-year-old driver Philippe Boutron needing surgery for serious leg injuries before he returned to France.

“We thought that maybe it’s best to abandon this sporting event… the question remains open,” Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told BFM television, adding that “there was potentially a terror attack against The Dakar.”

The gruelling race, formerly called the Paris-Dakar and now known just as The Dakar, used to be staged from the French capital following a route to the Senegalese capital Dakar.

But security threats along its route in North Africa meant that from 2009 it was held in South America and from 2020 in Saudi Arabia. 

National anti-terror prosecutors said in a statement Tuesday they had opened a probe into “multiple attempted killings in connection with a terrorist group.” 

All five occupants of the car, including the driver, were French.

One of the passengers, driver Thierry Richard, told AFP on Tuesday that he had no doubt that the car was targeted deliberately.

“It was an attack, they blew us up,” he said, adding that the incident had felt “like something from a war scene”.

The impact of the blast lifted the car off the ground and it immediately caught fire, Richard said.

“We’re not stupid, we know what an explosion feels like,” he said.

Boutron’s son said Thursday that his father had emerged from a coma, though both legs were “badly injured.”

France has warned its citizens in Saudi Arabia to excercise “maximum alertness – security risk” in the wake of the blast.

“The possibility of a criminal act has not been ruled out,” the ministry said in updated guidance on its website.

France routinely investigates crimes committed against its citizens abroad.

‘At any cost?’

In France, media and politicians have raised questions over the insistence of the Saudi authorities and the race organisers that the explosion was not the result of criminal activity.

“Is the Dakar supposed to take place at any cost, despite very strong suspicions that this was an attack?” asked the left-leaning Liberation newspaper, observing that organisers had remained “very tightlipped” about the incident.

Senator Jean-Pierre Sueur, a member of the opposition Socialist party and a former minister, meanwhile asked Le Drian to explain how vigorously the government was pursuing its search for answers from both Saudi Arabia and the race organisers.

In a statement, Sueur said that he had notably asked Le Drian “whether he could explain the reasons why the facts had been kept hidden” and whether French anti-terror investigators would be allowed by the Saudis to investigate the incident fully.

In Friday’s interview, Le Drian called for “the greatest possible transparency” from Saudi Arabia.

French interests had in the past been targeted by “terrorist acts”, he said.

In October of 2020 a guard at the French consulate in Jeddah was injured in a knife attack. Two weeks later, two people were injured in an attack on a gathering of foreign diplomats, including French, for the anniversary of the armistice ending World War I. 

The final stage of this year’s race is scheduled to take place on January 14.

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