(Reuters) - Four members of an Ethiopian track team competing at an international event in Oregon were missing in what officials said on Monday might be an attempt to seek asylum or otherwise stay in the United States.
The athletes, who were not believed to be victims of foul play, traveled to the University of Oregon in Eugene last week to compete in the International Association of Athletics Federations World Junior Championships, a university spokeswoman said.
"It is being handled like a missing persons case," school spokeswoman Julie Brown said, adding that investigators were looking into the possibility the four had left willingly to try to seek asylum. "We do have third-party information they are safe."
The four, a 17-year-old boy and three women between the ages of 18 and 20, had finished their events when they were reported missing Saturday, officials said.
The University of Oregon Police Department, which is leading search efforts, said the four were not believed to have left the state. Officers were looking at the possibility they abandoned their team in an effort to remain in the country, said university police spokesman Kelly McIver.
"We have not ruled anything out," he said. "But we can't confirm yet if it's an attempt to claim asylum."
Ethiopia is one of the world's poorest countries and has been accused by rights campaigners and the political opposition of stifling dissent and torturing political detainees.
More than 100 countries were represented in the World Junior Championships, which began last Tuesday and concluded on Sunday.
During the 2012 London Olympics, a 15-year-old Ethiopian boy who took part in opening ceremonies disappeared. Authorities, who speculated he might have been trying to gain asylum in England, found him in London after issuing a missing persons alert. He later returned to Ethiopia.
Reporting by Victoria Cavaliere in Seattle; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Jim Loney