'Missing' French tourists were safe at home

AIGUINES, France (AFP) - French tourists believed missing after their abandoned canoe was discovered at a popular holiday spot, sparking an expensive manhunt, were safe at home all along, police said on Saturday.

The discovery of an empty canoe floating in the Lac de Sainte-Croix in the heart of Provence triggered fears for a couple and two children believed to have rented it on Thursday.

About 40 rescuers, backed up by a helicopter, divers and sniffer dogs, had been scouring the picturesque emerald lake and its surrounds ever since, in a rescue operation closely followed by local media.

However, on Saturday the occupants of the canoe - in fact two couples and no children - came forward after a friend of one of the "missing" couples alerted police and the mystery was solved.

Gendarme Captain Frederic Del Aguila said the tourists explained that their boat had been overturned by a small wave after the sluices were opened on a hydroelectric dam.

After an argument and "in a panic" the group left the canoe, taking with them the oars and life jackets, and eventually found a lift home.

Del Aguila welcomed the "happy outcome" of the affair.

The prosecutor for the commune of Draguignan, Danielle Drouy-Ayral, said gendarmes questioned one of the women, who "admitted it was she and her friends who abandoned the canoe after having navigation troubles and getting into an argument."

"A little worried about the consequences it could have, they didn't want to come forward," the prosecutor said, adding that it was not possible to press charges against the tourists.

However they would be fined 35 euros for entering a part of the lake forbidden to tourists, said local deputy prefect, Emmanuel Dupuis.

Holidaymakers flock to the lake, renting canoes and paddle-boats to make their way up the Gorges de Verdon, a spectacular river canyon that is 25km long and up to 700m deep in places.

The owner of the canoe rental company Gerard Lacroix expressed his "anger at the irresponsibility" of the tourists for not coming forward earlier.

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