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Annual Off-Road Desert Competition, Dakar Rally, Starts Saturday


Almost 250 competitors set off Saturday from Lisbon, Portugal in the annual car, motorcycle and truck race that will cross the sandy terrain of six countries. Billed by its organizers as the world's toughest off-road race, last year fewer than half the competitors reached the final destination of Dakar, Senegal. Phuong Tran reports from VOA's West African bureau in Dakar.

Pending confirmation from the Dakar Rally's officials, Portugal's Ruben Faria won the first timed race for the motorcycle category of the 2007 Dakar Rally. The race took place Saturday in Lisbon, Portugal under foggy skies.

The race will cover six countries and almost 8,000 kilometers in 15 stages, entering Africa on the third stage. The longest stage of the rally will be an 800-kilometer timed race that will take place in Mauritania, from Tan Tan to Zouérat.

Since the Dakar Rally began in 1979, 23 racers have died in the competion. Rally officials say they are taking extra precautions this year to ensure safety.

Last week, the rally's organizer, the Amaury Sport Organization, citing safety concerns, canceled a section of the race that was going to take place in Timbuktu, Mali.

Race official Emilie Poucan says for the first time since the competition began a scouting team is on various stages of the course identifying risk zones.

"Just before the race, they went to Africa for three months," said Poucan. "They made a map of all the dangers. Each participant has the map saying where it is safe and where they have to be very careful because the road is not good. We hope it is going to much much safer."

Poucan says that these security patrols will remain posted along the route to alert drivers of potential dangers.

She says more than 45,000 comic strips depicting the safety precautions of the race were distributed to local populations along the route, and that the maximum speed allowed in the villages that the race crosses is 50 kilometers per hour.

The dangers have not turned away some long-time racers like 55-year-old Ari Vatanen from Finland, a four-time winner of the rally.

"You're excited because you know that you have got everything that it takes to win. There [is a] sort of pressure, of course, [a] certain anxiety but that's real competition," said Vatanen.

Since 1979, more than 13,000 men and women have competed in the race. This year more than 500 racers are entered; of these 27 are women.

The race is scheduled to finish in Dakar, Senegal on January 21.

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