Turkmenistan fires starting pistol on desert auto rally

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more than 80 teams representing 20 countries are taking part in the rally

Turkmenistan's authoritarian leader on Tuesday launched the isolated country's first international auto rally running through the Karakum desert and tracing a spur of the Old Silk Road.

The five-stage race involving more than 80 teams representing 20 countries is set to wind up on Saturday and will serve as a qualifying tournament for a longer, two-week rally through three African countries next year.

Speaking at the rally's opening, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov said the race from the eastern city of Amul -- a former hub on the old trade routes linking Europe and Asia -- to the western city of Hazar on the country's Caspian coast would "bring peoples closer together."

"We are holding the first international rally called 'Amul-Hazar 2018'," boomed Berdymukhamedov, who has in the past driven racing cars around for state media. "Welcome."

Contestants will race across deserts and wild terrain spanning approximately 1,570 kilometers (975 miles).

Jean-Louis Schlesser, a French ex-Formula One driver and rally champion who is the director of the Amul-Hazar race, thanked over 150 participants including "the big names that responded".

Russian rally raid truck driver Ayrat Mardeev and British car driver Harry Hunt are among the better-known competitors featuring in the Turkmen Desert Race that is also open to amateurs.

Schlesser said the race would be part of "an ecological approach to rally driving" that he says is already being practised in his Africa Eco race whose route runs through Morocco, Mauritania and Senegal.

Turkmen authorities have been keen to promote the country as potential stage for international sports events and in 2017 hosted the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games.

The Africa Eco race whose first edition was in 2012 bills itself as an alternative to the more famous Dakar rally which once began in Paris and ended in Dakar but currently does not include either city on its circuit.

The four decade-old Dakar rally was moved from Africa in 2009 because of security issues that saw the 2008 edition cancelled.

The 2019 Dakar Rally will be run solely in Peru with the start and finish in Lima.