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France considers cancelling Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia after 'terrorist attack'

French prosecutors investigating Jeddah bomb that severely injured driver, as claims of a Saudi 'cover-up' swirl
KTM's Austrian biker Matthias Walkner competes during Stage 4 of the Dakar 2022 between al-Qaysumah and Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, 5 January 2022 (AFP)

France is considering cancelling the 2022 Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia after the European country's foreign minister said the kingdom should have been transparent about an explosion at the racing event last week, which French investigators are currently treating as a "terrorist attack."

Two days before the motorsport event launched in Saudi Arabia on 1 January, a car carrying six passengers from the Sodicars Racing team exploded outside the Donatello hotel in the coastal city of Jeddah.

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The French rally driver and competitor Philippe Boutron, 61, was severely injured in the event.

According to Sodicars Racing, Boutron's legs were "burnt and torn", and they were concerned about doctors amputating both legs to save his life. He is being treated at a military hospital near Paris, where he has just emerged from a medically induced coma. 

The other passengers were not hurt. Richard Gonzalez, chairman of Sodicars Racing, said that an explosive device was under the vehicle.

"I saw everything. It was a deliberate act; there's no doubt about it," Gonzalez said.

On Friday, French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said they had told the organisers of Dakar Rally and Saudi officials to be "very transparent on what had happened because there were hypothesis that it was a terrorist attack."

He added that France is considering cancelling the Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia, which was moved to the Arabian peninsula in 2020, prompting accusations of sportswashing

"We thought that perhaps it was better to suspend this sporting event," Le Drian said on Friday, of this year's race, which is ongoing. "But the organisers thought not... The question is still on the table."

Accusations of a cover-up

French prosecutors opened an investigation into the explosion on Tuesday. 

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France's secret services were tasked with scrutinising claims of an attempted "cover-up" to avoid embarrassment by Saudi authorities, the Times newspaper reported. 

Saudi Arabia's public security department said on 1 January that "preliminary evidence-gathering procedures found no criminal suspicion."

The Dakar Rally has been plagued with difficulties since it first launched in 1978, originally running between Paris and the Senegalese capital Dakar.

The event was cancelled in 2008, following security threats in the Sahel region. It was moved to South America from 2009 to 2019. Despite criticism from public figures of Saudi Arabia's human rights abuses, the competition was moved to the kingdom in 2020. 

Human Rights Watch has described Saudi Arabia's hosting of the Dakar Rally, which runs until 14 January, as part of an attempt by de-facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to whitewash the kingdom's "abusive rights reputation using large-scale events, with highly controlled environments, to show a progressive face of the kingdom."

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