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Tunis - Former Paris-Dakar rally winner Kenjiro Shinozuka, in a coma and fighting for his life after a crash on Thursday's eighth stage of the 2003 event, has been flown to a hospital in Tunis.
The 54-year-old Shinozuka, Japan's most distinguished rally driver, was flown to Tunis-Carthage airport, along with French co-driver Thierry Delli-Zotti and four other injured rally contenders.
According to eyewitnesses, they were carried out of the light aircraft on stretchers into six waiting ambulances and taken to the most sophisticated clinic in the Tunisian capital.
All the five men moved their arms or talked to some reporters except Shinozuka, whose body was wrapped in what looked-like a blanket covered with wires from an intensive care machine and other medical equipment.
Shinozuka and Delli-Zotti were seriously hurt when their Nissan pick-up went over a sand dune halfway through the 727-km stage between Ghat and Sabha in Libya.
Earlier, rally doctor Christian Noel told French television Shinozuka was in a coma with a serious facial concussion, adding that he was not in a condition to be taken any further than Tunis, but would be flown to Paris later.
"His life is in danger. We'll have to wait for 24 or 48 hours to hopefully give better news.
The doctor said that Delli-Zotti, 38, was in much better shape than his partner.
"His condition is satisfactory," Noel added. "He's alright, we're sending him to Tunis in a stable condition. We're not worried at all.
Race organisers earlier released a statement about the accident.
"Vehicle number 201 suffered a serious accident at the 373rd kilometre of the stage," it said. "The car flew over a dune and landed several dozen metres further.
"Driver Kenjiro Shinozuka is in a very serious condition and his navigator, Thierry Delli-Zotti, in a serious condition.
Shinozuka, who won the event in 1997 and with Delli-Zotti finished third last year, had been in third place overall after Wednesday's seventh stage, in which he finished eighth.
He made his rally debut in 1967 and became the first Japanese driver to complete the Kenyan Safari Rally in 1976.
After claiming the Asia Pacific rally championship in 1988 he moved on to the world stage, competing in the world championship from 1989 to 1994 and again in 1996.
His victory in the 1991 Ivory Coast Rally was the first by a Japanese driver and, with co-driver John Meadows, he repeated the victory the next year.
Shinozuka was a factory driver for Japanese car manufacturer Mitsubishi from 1971 until June when he resigned rather than stop driving and take the management role he had been offered.
"I would like to pursue new possibilities as a driver and this has led to this decision," he said at the time. "I would like to continue the challenge in life that I've set myself."
Delli-Zotti was taking part in his 16th Dakar Rally.