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Dakar analysis: deaths cast shadow

The deaths of two African children and a competitor have cast a shadow over the Dakar rally triumph of former leading skier Luc Alphand and left the event looking more controversial than ever

The two boys died after being hit by one of the competitors and by a support vehicle during the 13th and 14th stages on Friday and Saturday, while Australian motorcyclist Andy Caldecott was killed in a crash during the ninth stage on January 9.

Two bike riders, including twice winner Fabrizio Meoni of Italy, died in crashes last year and motorcycles had tougher speed limits imposed this year in an effort to improve safety.

"It really raises the question of safety," spectator Hussein Ousman, who has seen the rally arrive in Dakar 20 times, told reporters after the gruelling rally ended on Sunday.

"These deaths are terrible. We cannot have this. Something must be done about it."

Since the race set off for the first time from Paris in 1978 it has claimed 48 lives, including eight children, 23 competitors and the founder of the rally Thierry Sabine, who was killed in a helicopter crash 20 years ago.

As a tribute to the latest three victims, organisers decided not to time Sunday's 110-km last stage around Lac Rose, a scenic salt lake set amid beachside sand dunes north east of Dakar.

Alphand, the 1997 Alpine skiing World Cup champion and the world's best downhiller for years before switching to rallying, won in the cars division driving a Mitsubishi.

KTM rider Marc Coma of Spain, who dominated the race since it started from Lisbon on December 31, took the motorcycle section.

Smiling Alphand

Organisers said they were shocked by the deaths but they made clear the race would continue next year.

French sports daily L'Equipe, which is part of the same group as the company running the event, put a picture of a smiling Alphand on its front page on Monday.

Most the other French newspapers wrote little about the 9.043-km drive across seven countries through deserts with towering sand dunes and several focussed more on the deaths than Alphand's victory.

"No other event in the world would survive such a death toll so how has the Dakar managed to?" French daily Liberation asked on Monday.

"Notably because the rally brings a substantial amount of cash to the countries it crosses, which are among the poorest in the world," the newspaper added.

Race director Etienne Lavigne also stressed the importance of the race for those countries.

"I think the Europeans have always under-estimated how important the race is for the countries it crosses," he told L'Equipe.

Lavigne said safety was the organisers' main concern and they would continue to work on it.

"Don't count on me to announce measures immediately," he added.

"We have to work together with the competitors and government officials to make sure it does not happen again."

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