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Kidnap fears kybosh charity car rally

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Exclusive The Plymouth to Dakar Challenge - a charity drive across the Sahara using highly unsuitable cars - has been forced into a last minute cancellation because of warnings of al-Qaeda snatch squads targeting drivers on the route.

The cars, which should cost less than £100, cross Europe and Morocco before entering Mauritania and crossing the Sahara. But following the kidnapping of Spanish and French aid workers in recent weeks, the rally has been cancelled. Three groups were booked this year, with the first set of 15 cars due to leave 18 December for Banjul, Gambia.

Julian Nowill, the man behind the rallies, told The Register: "It is very disappointing but I'm one thousand per cent sure this advice is right. It is hugely disappointing for everyone involved, the African charities and indeed hoteliers and other people en route who depend on us to make a living." Nowill said he hoped those signed up for the rally would join the Moroccan off-road jaunt instead. Nowill was briefed by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Counter Terrorism Unit of the Met Police before deciding to pull the plug.

Senior security sources told The Register that al-Qaeda connected groups were actively targeting the rally with the intention of killing British teams and kidnapping European participants.

Travel advice to Mauritania changed after three Spaniards were kidnapped at the end of last month. An al-Qaeda affiliated group, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, has claimed responsibility and is demanding the release of prisoners in exchange for the hostages. The same group is holding a Frenchman, with all four believed to be in Mali.

Borders in the region are porous. Earlier this year a British man, Edwin Dyer, was kidnapped and killed in Mali but it is believed the group moves freely between Mali, Mauritania and Algeria. Europeans held with Dyer were released unharmed.

Last year's Banjul rally raised almost £67,000 for local Gambian charities through the sale of cars, many of which of course are also useful, and money-making, tools in their own right. The Timbuktu challenge raised £10,500.

This reporter took part in the 2005 rally in a £20 Citroen. The car made it to Gambia and was sold for £900. The buyer hoped to use it as a bush taxi and mobile shop.

The rules are: cars should cost less than £100 and competitors should spend less than £20 on preparations.

Competitors vary from Lada-driving lunatics to over-prepared Land Rovers and everything in between. At the end of the drive all vehicles and equipment are sold off, or donated directly, with the proceeds going to local charities.

It was based on the Paris-Dakar race but "for poorer, more stupid people". It began in 2003 with a trip to Dakar before the finish line was moved to Banjul in Gambia.

The real Paris-Dakar race was cancelled on security grounds in 2008, this year's race will take place in Latin America.

Nowill hopes next year's rally will go-ahead, possibly with help and security from the Mauritanian army. Nowill is also organising "Metros to Murmansk" taking a convoy of British Leyland's legendary Mini Metros to the Russian city in July or August of next year.

Details of all their trips, including the Silk Road rally to Tashkent are here.

The Adventurist Africa Rally, which had 40 cars due to leave the UK on Sunday, has also cancelled the event rerouted the event due to advice from counter terror cops. The Adventurists are still heading off on Sunday, they've just not revealed the destination yet. ®

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