Giant airlift for Sahara rally after terror threat

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The Independent Online

A round-the-clock airlift is under way to thwart a feared attack against a world-famous trans-Saharan motor rally by the GIA, the Islamic terrorist group opposed to the Algerian government amnesty for insurgents, which was due to expire at midnight last night.

A round-the-clock airlift is under way to thwart a feared attack against a world-famous trans-Saharan motor rally by the GIA, the Islamic terrorist group opposed to the Algerian government amnesty for insurgents, which was due to expire at midnight last night.

Chartered civilian jets and giant Russian-built Antonov-124 cargo planes began a five-day operation yesterday ferrying some 360 cars, trucks and motorcycles as well as 1,400 competitors, mechanics, organisers and journalists from Niger's capital, Niamey, to two sites in south-western Libya, where the Dakar to Cairo rally will resume early next week.

The 2,000km (1,250-mile) shuttle will involve more than 20 round trips. With this giant aerial-bound, the event will skip all four of the scheduled stages across the Tenere desert in Niger, where French and American intelligence reports suggested the GIA would strike. "We've nothing to do with politics," said Jean-Claude Killy, the former French Olympic skiing champion and head of the group that organises the rally. "But if we're told there's a terrorist threat, we've got no choice in the matter."

Fears for the safety of the Niger section of the race first surfaced last week, when French intelligence reportedly intercepted messages between GIA units based across the Algerian border in Niger. These suggested a possible attack as the drivers crossed Niger between 12 and 14 January, co-inciding with the expiry of the amnesty offer to guerrillas who fought in Algeria's savage eight-year civil war.

The French warnings came at the same time as the US State Department warned Americans in northern Africa that they could face terrorist strikes to mark the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. The US action may have been prompted by the arrest of two Algerians, both allegedly linked to the GIA, at Canadian frontier points as they tried to enter America just before Christmas.

According to another rally organiser, Hubert Auriol, 300 heavily armed Algerian rebels, equipped with 40 four-wheel- drive vehicles were planning to ambush the rally. Their aim was to humiliate and take revenge on the Niger government, which backed an earlier 1998 campaign by the Algerian army to wipe out the GIA.

The interruption of the rally comes at a moment of truth for the efforts of the Algerian President, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, to end a war that has seen countless atrocities and taken more than 100,000 lives since 1992.

As the amnesty deadline approached, the country's media reported that a smaller hold-out group, the Da'wa wal Djihad (Appeal and Struggle) was about to accept a blanket amnesty offer similar to the deal accepted earlier this week by the AIS, the military wing of the banned Islamic FIS party.

But if the envisaged onslaught against the rally is any indicator, the GIA intends to fight on - triggering what President Bouteflika has vowed will be a "war without mercy."

Hundreds of extra paratroopers and special troops have already been deployed to areas known to be GIA strongholds, although the onslaught may not begin before potentially valuable information from debriefed insurgents has been processed by the authorities.

Whatever its justification, interruption of the rally has displeased many - above all a deeply offended Niger. An event described as a "Western recreational jaunt across a land of misery" none the less generates precious revenue and publicity for what the World Bank lists as the sixth poorest nation on earth. The Niamey government yesterday attacked the "scant consideration the organisers have for Niger and its ability to guarantee security on its territory," and hinted that next year, they would not be invited back.

In Libya, however, the competitors need have few worries: operations there are being supervised by Muammar Gaddafi, president of the official Libyan Automobile Club and namesake son of the country's ruler for the past 32 years.

This week's headlines have been just one more controversy for an event dogged by unscripted dramas since it began life as the Paris-Dakar rally in 1978. Stages in Niger were cancelled because of clashes between the government and Touareg tribesmen in 1988 and again in 1997. The Libyan army opened fire on a press car which had strayed off the permitted route in 1989. And a number of competitors were ambushed by bandits in Mauretania last year.

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