MAURITANIAN TROOPS were hunting Tuareg tribesmen fleeing across the Sahara desert after robbing about 50 competitors in the Paris-Dakar Rally at gunpoint on Wednesday evening.
The drivers fell one by one into a trap set up by about 20 armed men about 30 miles from the end of the 12th stage in Tichit, Mauritania.
In all, 22 vehicles were stopped, of which four cars, three trucks and one motorcycle were stolen. The victims, none of them British, were abandoned in the desert, later making their way unharmed to the Rally bivouac at Tichit.
This is the second armed robbery suffered by the Rally this year. On 5 January, a Mitsubishi driven by Stephen Piech, the nephew of the president of the Volkswagen group, VAG, was stolen in the desert north of here.
"We were very scared - I thought I was finished," said Belgian truck driver Peter de Mulder after his four-hour ordeal. "The leader of the gang was calm, but the others were very edgy."
Another Belgian, Renard Guy, who was driving a press car, said, "They told us they would kill us if we tried to trick them. They took everything we had, but left us with water and some cigarettes. We were able to squeeze into the vehicles they left and head for the bivouac." The one victim not searched, a woman doctor, was able to raise the alarm by satellite telephone.
"I had the fright of a lifetime." another driver, Eric Vigouroux, said, describing how he was separated from the other drivers in the dark by a man armed with a machine gun who demanded everything he had.
The highly organised gang was armed with Kalashnikovs and other automatic weapons. They had lain in wait in the lee of a dune, striking as darkness fell at 7.0pm local time. Vehicles were stopped at gunpoint as they arrived, some having their tyres shot out.
A "Tata Trucks" T-shirt worn by the gang leader suggested that they may have been the same group which stole two vehicles and shot up others near Taoudenni in Mali in last year's Rally. His parting remark, "Thanks very much - see you next year", supports this view.
Last week the Rally had successfully detoured to avoid the bandit blackspot of Gao in southern Mali. Relief was short-lived: "Since you didn't come to Gao, where we were waiting, we came to see you here," the gang leader is reported to have said.
Saharan banditry has a long and complex history. For thousands of years, Tuareg warriors plundered salt caravans, a tradition updated by the robbing of race convoys. In recent years, the Tuaregs have fiercely resisted the imposition of frontiers and administrative barriers to their traditional way of life. Three years ago, they ostensibly surrendered to the regional authorities, and the race robbers are seen as the rump of that rebel force.
Mauritanian troops, aided by a Rally organisers' plane, began a hunt at dawn yesterday, with 360 soldiers sent north from Nema to head off a possible escape into Mali, while a similar force attempted to block the route to Algeria. By yesterday evening, three trucks and a four-wheel drive car had been abandoned by the thieves.
As for the Rally, organiser Hubert Auriol said that nothing could be gained by staying in Tichit, and that the race would continue normally. Simon Pavey, the motorbike rider whose progress is being tracked by the Independent, narrowly escaped being held up and is continuing in the Rally.
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