Four detained after death toll in Austrian motorway tragedy is raised from initial estimate of about 50 victims.
Hungarian police have arrested the driver of a lorry found on an Austrian motorway with the decomposing bodies of 71 people, including a baby girl, inside.
Austrian police said of the 71 dead, 59 were men, eight women and four children, and included Syrian refugees.
Three Bulgarians and an Afghan man have been detained, police said. Detectives have also questioned almost 20 people and searched homes, they added. Earlier Austrian police said the lorry owner was a Bulgarian citizen of Lebanese origin.
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The death toll was raised on Friday from initial estimates of 20 to 50 following the discovery of the remains on Thursday morning on Austria’s A4 motorway between Neusiedl and Parndorf. The truck, which had been abandoned on the hard shoulder of the road near Parndorf, had apparently been there since Wednesday. Austrian police said all those on board appeared to have suffocated and died before they entered the country.
Austrian police said of the 71 dead, 59 were men, eight women and four children, including a baby girl. The girl was between one and two. The three other children were boys, aged between eight and ten.
At a news conference in the town of Eisenstadt, Hans Peter Doskozil, police chief for the province of Burgenland, said one Syrian travel document had been found among the victims but that it was too early to say from which countries the entire group had come.
“We currently have three people under arrest in Hungary… and expect that that this is the trace that will lead us to the perpetrators,” Doskozil told reporters, making clear that the people being held were not ring leaders.
The lorry set off from Budapest in the early hours of Wednesday morning, and reached the Hungarian-Austrian border by 9am. It crossed into Austria that night and was spotted on the A4 at 5am or 6am on Thursday, police said.
The state of the bodies had made establishing an exact death toll difficult. Their identities were also not known, said Hans Peter Doskozil, head of police in the eastern district of Burgenland. “The deaths already occurred some time ago,” he added. “We can make no concrete assumptions about the origin or cause [of death]. We can assume, however, that they are refugees.”
The 7.5-tonne vehicle used to belong to the Slovak chicken meat company Hyza and still has the slogan “Honest chicken” on the side. The company said it sold the lorry in 2014. According to the Hungarian government, it is registered to a Romanian citizen from the central city of Kecskemét.
Road officials said on Thursday that an employee mowing the grass alerted police after noticing putrid liquid dripping from the back of the white refrigerated vehicle. Its door had been left ajar. Detectives then made the grim discovery.
Forensic teams at the scene examined the lorry, which has Hungarian number plates. Lindsey Hilsum of Channel 4 News tweeted that the “smell of death” at the scene was overwhelming. On Thursday afternoon, police towed the vehicle to a nearby hall and began removing bodies.
In a statement on Thursday, Austria’s interior minister, Johanna Mikl-Leitner, denounced the traffickers as criminals. “This tragedy is a concern for us all. Smugglers are criminals. They have no interest in the welfare of refugees. Only profit.”
The EU has found itself overwhelmed by the sheer scale of migration, with a record number of 107,500 migrants crossing the EU’s border last month. Chaotic attempts by Macedonian police to hold back refugees last week failed. On Wednesday, the UN’s refugee agency said it expected 3,000 people a day to enter Macedonia from Greece until at least the end of the year.
Berlin, backed by Austria, wants a new system of mandatory quotas for refugees across the EU despite the issue being rejected in acrimonious scenes by EU leaders at a summit in June. Germany expects 800,000 asylum applications this year. The EU has also proposed a common “safe countries of origin” list, which would see migrants from these nations swiftly deported.
With the EU’s common border policy increasingly dysfunctional, member states are taking matters into their own hands. Hungary is building a new fence along its border with Serbia, though this week refugees got through with relative ease.Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, opposes the initiative, saying: “We are not advocates of fences.”
On Tuesday, meanwhile, Austrian police arrested three drivers on suspicion of transporting migrants from Syria and other war-torn areas into the EU. One of them had driven 34 people packed into the back of a white van across the Austrian border.
The group included 10 small children, whom the driver abandoned by the side of the motorway near the city of Bruck an der Leitha. According to police, the migrants said in interviews they were hardly able to breathe during the trip.
They had asked repeatedly for more air, but the driver had ignored their requests, police added, and had driven without stopping from Serbia to Austria.
Amnesty International’s Europe deputy director, Gauri van Gulik, said countries in the region needed urgently to do more.
“People dying in their dozens – whether crammed into a truck or a ship – en route to seek safety or better lives is a tragic indictment of Europe’s failures to provide alternative routes,” he said. “Europe has to step up and provide protection to more, share responsibility better and show solidarity to other countries and to those most in need.”