LA PAZ: The Dakar Rally reached the lung-busting altitude of La Paz on Friday and was quickly caught up in violent street battles being fought between protesters and police in the tense Bolivian capital.
Around 100 demonstrators clashed with police who used tear gas and pepper spray to quell the trouble which spread to a road being used by the competitors.
“We want hospitals, not the Dakar,” chanted protesters, aiming their frustrations at President Evo Morales, who has been in power since 2006 and hopes to stay there until 2025.
Empty water bottles and chairs were thrown in the direction of the main official Dakar vehicle which led the competitors into La Paz.
The first motorcycle riders were jeered by protesters who have also been venting anger over the country’s penal code.
Despite the trouble, Morales welcomed the arrival of the two-week Dakar event, which stretches from Peru, into Bolivia and ends in Argentina, in his country.
“We are proud to participate in this event, which can integrate us in the world, promote sport and attract tourists,” he tweeted.
Hundreds of Bolivians appeared to agree with Morales as they cheered the riders and drivers, shrugging off the violence under the watchful eye of the armed forces.
In the event itself, Spain’s Carlos Sainz, a two-time world rally champion and 2010 winner at the Dakar, won the sixth stage, from Arequipa in Peru to La Paz, ahead of 13-time champion Stephane Peterhansel, one of his Peugeot teammates.
Sainz, 55, clocked 2hr 53min 30sec for the 313km timed run of the gruelling stage, 4min 06sec ahead of Peterhansel who retains the overall lead.
Sainz was also 5min 05sec in front of 2011 and 2015 Dakar champion Nasser Al-Attiyah in a Toyota.
“For sure, it was completely different,” said Peterhansel after a stage run on firmer surfaces than the dunes of the first five days.
“The tracks are easier. It’s easy navigation. The main problem is altitude for the driver and for the engine. We lost a lot of power and we lost concentration – you know, the brain also works in slow motion, so it was a little bit complicated.
“But today for me it was like a transition. We took no risks at all to finish the stage, just to arrive in a good position in La Paz.”
French rider Antoine Meo, on a KTM, claimed the motorcycle honours.
Argentina’s Kevin Benavides, on a Honda, was second, 30 seconds behind, but went to the top of overall standings. Australia’s Toby Price was third on the stage.
Benavides has a 1min 57sec lead over French Yamaha rider Adrien Van Beveren in the overall standings.
Friday is a rest day in La Paz. --AFP