In a statement posted on the internet and dated December 29, Algeria-based al-Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb criticised the government in Nouakchott for "securing for the infidels a suitable climate for the 'rally'".

French fears

The French government had expressed concerns about the route of the race and suggested that it skip Mauritania. It also advised against all travel to the country.

"Following several consultations with the French government ... and taking into account its firm recommendations, the organisers of the Dakar have taken the decision to cancel the 2008 edition of the rally scheduled for January 5-20 between Lisbon and the Senegalese capital," the ASO said.

"We have taken every measure to ensure that the rally goes forward without incident"

Babah Sidi Abdallah, Mauritania's
foreign minister
Bernard Kouchner, the French foreign minister, "hailed the organisers' courage and wisdom" in calling off the rally, Pascale Andreani, a spokeswoman for his ministry said.

But Babah Sidi Abdallah, the Mauritanian foreign minister, criticised the French organisers of the competition.

"No new element can justify the concern expressed by the French organisers," he said.

"We have taken every measure to ensure that the rally goes forward without incident."

Cyril Neveu, a five-time Dakar winner in the motorcycle category, acknowledged that the race could have been targeted.

"It is a big caravan of more than 3,000 people," he told French broadcaster I-Tele. He said he respected the organisers' decision but acknowledged: "Many are going to be disappointed."

"Providing security from the first to the last competitor is an onerous job," Neveu said. "One cannot say that there was zero risk."

Family murdered

The members of the French family were shot dead as they picnicked on the side of a road on December 24 in a town 250km east of the Mauritanian capital, Nouakchott.

Only the father of the family survived.
 
The attack, and another on a military base in the north of the country three days later, have been blamed on al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

Motorbikes, cars and trucks race to be the
fastest to reach Dakar [File: AFP]
The internet statement purporting to be from the group claimed responsibility for the attack on the army base.

However, the government of Mauritania said on Wednesday that was "not a single serious claim" linking the group to the attacks and suggested cross-border crime was as likely to be behind the twin attacks.

Last week, the interior ministry announced that 2,000 soldiers would be mobilised in addition to a similar number of plain-clothes security officers to safeguard the event.

In the past, security fears have forced organisers to cancel individual stages or reroute the race.

In 2000 several stages were scrapped after a threat forced organisers to airlift the entire race from Niger to Libya to avoid danger zones.

Several stages were also called off in 2004, reportedly because of threats in Mali.