Organizers of a rugged North African endurance race started airlifting cars, motorcycles and drivers to Libya Thursday after fears of terrorism prompted them to cancel several stages in Niger.
Two cargo planes carrying an advance party left Niamey's international airport Thursday for the Libyan town of Al Wyg, close to the southern border with Chad, where the race is due to continue Tuesday, officials in Paris and Niamey said.
Organizers in Niger said the $2 million airlift would continue until Sunday and involve 368 trucks, 143 cars and 14 press cars.
The race was halted Tuesday following warnings from the French government of "a serious risk of an external terrorist attack" in Niger.
Officials in Niger, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the threat was linked to Algerian extremists with secret bases in northern Niger. The group has links to 1995-96 bombings in France and the December arrests of several people suspected of trying to smuggle explosives into the United States from Canada.
Niger government officials reacted angrily to the airlift, which they described Thursday as a "boycott" of the poor West African country. Since a civil war by Tuareg nomads ended in the late 1990s, Niger has tried to promote tourism in stunning Sahara Desert settings.
"We made all the necessary precautions to ensure the smooth running of the rally over Niger's territory," spokesman Akoli Daouele said.
Rally official Hubert Auriol regretted the airlift, but felt organizers had no other choice.
Some competitors voiced disappointment.
"The terrorists hoped to get publicity by attacking the rally. So we shouldn't let them stop us," Frenchman Perrick LeBlanc said.
The rally, which is something of a "Cannonball Run" through the African desert, began Jan. 6 in Dakar, Senegal, and had been scheduled to end Jan. 23 in Cairo. Less than half the participants typically finish.
Last year's race from Spain to Dakar was marred by an armed robbery in Mauritania in which a number of competitors lost vehicles and money. In 1992, guerrillas in Chad forced cancellation of one stage and prompted a French military escort.
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