France could axe race over suspected ‘bomb’ attack in Saudi Arabia

Officials are investigating the possible terror attack in Saudi Arabia which left a French driver in a coma

France's foreign minister has announced that the Dakar rally could be called off following a car explosion in Saudi Arabia which left a 61-year-old racing driver seriously injured.

The explosion badly injured Philippe Boutron, who was in a support vehicle for the Sodicars Racing team outside a hotel in Jeddah on December and has since been flown back to France, where he was placed in a medically-induced coma. 

French prosecutors have opened a terrorism investigation into the incident despite Saudi investigators announcing last week that there was "no criminal suspicion".

However, race organizers subsequently said that a "malicious act" has not been ruled out.

According to French publication L'Equipe, the blast destroyed the floor of the car before it erupted into flames. Five other French passengers in the vehicle escaped unhurt. 

Boutron, who is president of French Ligue 2 team Orleans, has since emerged from his coma, with his family said to be "cautious" about his condition.

It has since emerged that French anti-terrorism investigators had received intelligence regarding "multiple attempted killings in connection with a terrorist group", a warning which has led to French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Dria admitting that the rally could be called off.

"We thought that maybe it's best to abandon this sporting event... the question remains open," Le Dria told the BFM television station. 

The rally, which was formerly known as the Paris-Dakar rally, was initially a race between the capitals of France and Senegal but terror threats in North Africa saw it move to South America in 2009 and later to Saudi Arabia in 2020. 

And while local Saudi officials haven't yet considered the blast a terrorist attack, at least one of the other passengers believes it was.

"It was an attack, they blew us up," said passenger Thierry Richard, who added that he was certain that the vehicle had been targeted deliberately. 

"We're not stupid, we know what an explosion feels like," he added.

A Sodicars press spokesperson was quoted by the Guardian as saying: “We must tell the truth.

"It was an attack, and not an accident as the Saudi authorities are trying to maintain. There was a bomb in the side rail of the vehicle, under the pedals.”

Sodicars boss Richard Gonzalez said he had "no doubt" the incident was deliberate.

“At first we thought something had hit the car but there was a significant impact under the car’s chassis," he explained.

"There was a charge under the side of the car that exploded. I was there, I have the photos, I saw everything.

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“When we saw the car, we thought something wasn’t quite right, but our priority was to get Philippe out and to hospital.

"He had suffered serious injuries to his legs. He’s a driver and a client but above all he’s been a friend for 10 years. It’s terrible.”

The Dakar rally, which usually runs from Paris to the Senegalese capital, was first held in 1978. It has taken place in Saudi Arabia since 2020 for security reasons.

France has warned its citizens in Saudi Arabia to be on high alert for a repeat attack, calling for "maximum alertness" and describing the scenario as a "security risk".

The final stage of the rally is due to begin next week on January 14. 

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