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September 5, 2009

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Ecology protests hit Rally Australia

THE first full day of the Australian leg of the World Rally Championship was thrown into chaos yesterday after protesters forced the cancellation of two stages.

The cars of several drivers, including five-time world champion Sebastien Loeb, were pelted with stones while riot police were called in to investigate reports that boulders had been placed on the course and fences cut down allowing cattle to stray onto the track.

Police deployed a helicopter to the site but no arrests were made although Superintendent Michael Kenny said investigation was continuing.

"The protesters involved in this rock-throwing incident have shown total disregard for the safety of competitors and officials involved in today's stage of the event," Kenny told reporters. "Their behavior had the potential to seriously injure or kill someone."

Rally Australia organizers immediately canceled the morning's sixth stage because of safety concerns to spectators and drivers.

They also canceled a second stage in the afternoon, to be run over the same 11.33-kilometer section in Kingscliff, as a precaution.

"Some people don't like us in front of their house but I didn't ask to come here," Frenchman Loeb said.

"I can understand why some people don't like the rally but I have to do my job."

The rally is being held on Australia's eastern coast for the first time but has been met with criticism from environmental groups.

The rally was previously held near Perth in Western Australia from 1989 to 2006 but was scrapped because of financial reasons and moved east to New South Wales.

Environmental groups said the rally would cause damage to local flora and scare wildlife and launched an unsuccessful legal campaign to have the race stopped.

"I find it highly regrettable that anybody would stoop to violence, however, I can understand where it comes from," Fiona McCormick, from the No Rally Group, told Australian Broadcasting Radio Corp yesterday.

"It comes from that sense of people being disempowered, what are they to do?"

The protests completely overshadowed the day's action, which ended with Finland's Jari-Matti Latvala leading by 2.2 seconds.

The 24-year-old won six of the 11 completed stages in his Ford to overtake overnight leader Sebastien Ogier of France, who won three stages in his Citroen, including the final two.

Loeb, who trails Finland's Mikko Hirvonen by three points in the championship, finished the day third overall, 22 seconds off the pace.

Hirvonen was fifth, less than a second behind Loeb, after winning the second stage of the morning.

Rally Australia, the 10th in this year's 12-round series, continues today before finishing a day later.


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