71 mi­grants likely suf­fo­cated in truck: of­fi­cials


Po­lice ar­rested sev­eral peo­ple be­lieved to be part of a hu­man smug­gling op­er­a­tion in con­nec­tion with the deaths of 71 mi­grants who likely suf­fo­cated in a re­frig­er­ated truck found aban­doned on Aus­tria’s main high­way, law en­force­ment of­fi­cials said Fri­day.

Aus­trian po­lice said three peo­ple had been ar­rested while their Hun­gar­ian coun­ter­parts said four were in de­ten­tion. There was no im­me­di­ate ex­pla­na­tion for the dis­crep­ancy.

This year has seen tens of thou­sands of peo­ple risk­ing ev­ery­thing to seek a bet­ter life or refuge in wealthy Euro­pean coun­tries. At least 2,500 have died, mostly at sea, where another tragedy was un­fold­ing Fri­day as Libyan author­i­ties counted bod­ies from two ships that cap­sized off the coast of that coun­try. The U.N. refugee agency said 200 were miss­ing and feared dead.

In Aus­tria, of­fi­cials said they are still in­ves­ti­gat­ing but be­lieve the mi­grants suf­fo­cated. In­ves­ti­ga­tors found a Syr­ian travel doc­u­ment, in­di­cat­ing that at least some of the dead were refugees flee­ing vi­o­lence in Syria, though it wasn’t clear if some were from else­where.

The 71 in­cluded eight women and four chil­dren, the youngest a girl be­tween 1 and 2 years old, the oth­ers boys aged 8 to 10. Author­i­ties ini­tially es­ti­mated the death toll at 20 to 50, but raised it af­ter tow­ing the truck to a re­frig­er­ated ware­house and count­ing the par­tially de­com­posed bod­ies.

Mi­grants fear­ful of death at sea in over­crowded and flimsy boats have in­creas­ingly turned to us­ing a land route to Europe through the Western Balkans. They start in Greece, which they can reach via a short boat trip from Tur­key, then move on through Mace­do­nia, Ser­bia and into Hungary, where thou­sands have been cross­ing the bor­der ev­ery day, crawl­ing over or un­der a ra­zor-wire fence meant to keep them out.

Most go from there to other coun­tries in the Euro­pean Union, some­times pay­ing smug­glers to drive them, but the dis­cov­ery of the bod­ies in the truck showed there is no truly safe path.

Po­lice in Hungary said that as of Tues­day, 776 sus­pected hu­man smug­glers had been de­tained so far this year, com­pared to 593 all of 2014. In the south­ern part of the coun­try, po­lice said they had found 18 Syr­i­ans near an over­turned van on the M5 high­way be­tween Szeged and Bu­dapest early Fri­day. Ten were taken to the hos­pi­tal for treat­ment while the driver, a Ro­ma­nian, was treated for head in­juries and then taken into cus­tody on sus­pi­cion of hu­man smug­gling.

The truck with the 71 mi­grants in­side was found parked in the safety lane of the high­way from Bu­dapest, Hungary, to Vi­enna on Thurs­day. It was not clear how long the bod­ies had been in it, but po­lice be­lieved they may al­ready have been dead by the time the truck crossed the bor­der into Aus­tria overnight Wed­nes­day. Au­top­sies were be­ing con­ducted, said state pros­e­cu­tor Jo­hann Fuchs, with re­sults ex­pected in sev­eral days.

Aus­trian po­lice said that two of the three ar­rested are Bul­gar­ian cit­i­zens, while the third has Hun­gar­ian iden­tity pa­pers. One is the truck owner, a Bul­gar­ian of Le­banese de­scent, while two oth­ers were ap­par­ently tak­ing turns driv­ing, said Hans Peter Doskozil, chief of po­lice in Bur­gen­land province, where the truck was found. He said po­lice be­lieve that the sus­pects were part of a larger Bul­gar­ian-Hun­gar­ian hu­man smug­gling ring.

In Bu­dapest, Hun­gar­ian na­tional po­lice spokes­woman Vik­to­ria Csiszer-Ko­vacs said four peo­ple — three Bul­gar­ian cit­i­zens and one from Afghanistan — were in cus- tody in con­nec­tion with the deaths.

Csiszer-Ko­vacs said two Hun­gar­ian po­lice de­tec­tives were work­ing with author­i­ties in Aus­tria on the case.

Fuchs said it was un­clear when the sus­pects would be ex­tra­dited by Hun­gar­ian author­i­ties, who were look­ing to see if they had ju­ris­dic­tion in the case. Ro­ma­nia’s for­eign min­istry also said that 12 Ro­ma­ni­ans had been de­tained in Hungary on sus­pi­cion of hu­man traf­fick­ing and Hun­gar­ian author­i­ties are seek­ing to ar­rest them.

A wake-up Call

In­te­rior Min­is­ter Jo­hanna Mik­lLeit­ner said the tragedy “should serve as a wake-up call ... for joint Euro­pean ac­tion” in deal­ing with the tor­rent of mi­grants flock­ing to Europe. Melissa Flem­ing, spokes­woman for the U.N. refugee agency in Geneva called the tragedy “ab­so­lutely shock­ing.”

“We be­lieve this un­der­scores the ruth­less­ness of peo­ple smug­glers who have ex­panded their busi­ness from the Mediter­ranean Sea to the highways of Europe. It shows they have ab­so­lutely no re­gard for hu­man life, and that they are only af- ter profit,” she said. “It also shows the des­per­a­tion of peo­ple seek­ing pro­tec­tion or a new life in Europe, and their only means is to sub­mit them­selves to these crim­i­nals.”


Blan­kets cover the view of a truck that is be­ing in­ves­ti­gated at a vet­eri­nary bor­der sta­tion at the Aus­trian/Hun­gar­ian bor­der in Nick­els­dorf, Aus­tria, Fri­day, Aug 28.

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