French investigators to head soon to Saudi Arabia for Dakar rally probe - source

·2 min read
FILE PHOTO: Dakar Rally

PARIS (Reuters) - French investigators are preparing to go to Saudi Arabia soon as part of their investigation into incidents targeting French nationals that marred last month's Dakar sports car rally, a source with knowledge of the matter told Reuters on Friday.

French RMC radio said later that a mission including French DGSI secret service agents and an investigating magistrate would travel to Saudi Arabia, where the rally was held, as soon as Saturday for several days, citing sources close to the probe.

"They will be welcomed by the Saudi authorities before a first briefing on Sunday", RMC said.

French anti-terrorism prosecutors opened a preliminary investigation earlier this month into an explosion under a support vehicle at the rally at the end of December, in which French race driver Philippe Boutron was seriously injured.

They have also heard from witnesses about a second incident in which a support truck, belonging to the team of Franco-Italian rally competitor Camelia Liparoti, caught fire, the source confirmed to Reuters.

French radio RMC said the driver heard a "boom" before the fire broke out.

"A mission is planned for very soon," the source said, adding that, contrary to what has been said in some French media, "the Saudis have never been resistant" to cooperating.

The source said there had been no urgency for French investigators to go on the ground because they started their probe by hearing French witnesses as they came back from Saudi Arabia.

This phase of the probe is now over, the source said.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has said "there were hypotheses" that the incident, in which Boutron was injured, "was a terrorist attack".

But Saudi Arabia's foreign ministry said on Jan. 8 that an initial investigation into the first blast had not raised any criminal suspicions.

The source said that at this stage, Saudi Arabia's stance has not changed.

Some of the witnesses debriefed upon return to France mentioned the second incident, the source said, without adding any details. The origin of the fire is unclear, Liparoti herself said on Instagram at the start of January.

(Reporting by Alain Acco and Tassilo Hummel; writing by Ingrid Melander; editing by Christian Lowe, Andrew Cawthorne and Philippa Fletcher)