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Drivers and team officials gather in Lisbon after hearing news of the cancellation of the Dakar rally on Friday. ((Christophe Ena/Associated Press))

The Dakar Rally, the world's largest off-road race, has been cancelled over worries about the al-Qaeda-linked slaying of four tourists in Mauritania and threats "directly against the race by terrorist organizations," organizers said Friday.

The race was scheduled to begin Saturday in Lisbon, Portugal, and wrap up two weeks later in Dakar, Senegal. Eight of the race's 15 stages were set to take place in Mauritania.

The announcement comes after the French government warned against travel to the North African country following the killing of a French family on Dec. 24.

The government of Mauritania blamed the deaths on an Algerian-based sleeper cell affiliated with al-Qaeda.

"No other decision but the cancellation of the sporting event could be taken by [Amaury Sport Organization]," a news release posted on the rally's website said. "ASO's first responsibility is to guarantee the safety of all."

But Mauritania's foreign minister criticized rally organizers for cancelling the event.

"No new element can justify the concern expressed by the French organizers," Foreign Minister Babah Sidi Abdallah told the RTL television station.

It is the first time in the race's 30-year history that it has been cancelled. Only stages have been called off in the past.

Rally officials dismissed worries that the cancellation could spell trouble for future races.

"The Dakar is a symbol and nothing can destroy symbols. The cancellation of the 2008 edition does not endanger the future of the Dakar," the news release said.

The gruelling competition sees trucks, cars and motorcycles cover more than 9,000 kilometres across rough terrain, including the Sahara Desert.