THOUSANDS of armed fighters are guarding drivers in the Paris-Dakar Rally from a terrorist threat.

But the drivers - among them a father and son team from the Huddersfield area - are pressing ahead with the race.

Paul Round, 46, of Lower Cumberworth, and Mark, 26, from Emley, soared up the rankings from 74th to 53rd yesterday after the longest stage of the race, 656 miles.

They are now entering Mauritania in their purpose-built vehicle - but potholed roads, massive sand dunes and rocky terrain are not the only dangers awaiting them in the desert tracts.

"The problem is that this zone has always served as a redoubt for criminals, bandits and, recently, terrorists," said Moulaye Najim, director of Hot Spots weekly, which surveys crisis points in French West Africa.

Mauritania's Arab-led government is so worried about the threat from groups linked to the al Qaida terrorist organisation that it has promised 5,000 fighters to protect the vehicles.

The race brings an influx of wealth to the region each year.

One official said the governments had taken "maximum measures" to deter any attacks.

Last year - the rally's 25th anniversary - route changes were made because of the danger from terrorist cells hiding in the desert, as well as conflicts in the Central African Republic and Congo.

The nations who missed out then decided to supply guards to ensure organisers returned the race to their regions this year.

African and Arabian traders and tribesman have made their annual fortunes from the Dakar Rally for years.

Some sell trinkets to drivers while others scavenge vehicles abandoned in the desert.

In Mali, 800 military and paramilitary fighters will provide protection.

But the route will still skip its one-time passage through Algeria, home to an Islamic extremist group ranked among the most dangerous in the world.

Racers will also avoid stretches of northern Mali and north Mauritania, where security experts believe al Qaida cells may be hiding.