Friday, August 28, 2015

4 Arrested as Suspects in Austrian Migrant Van Deaths
Kim Hjelmgaard and Doug Stanglin
USA TODAY 11:18 a.m. EDT
August 28, 2015

Austrian authorities discovered a truck full of migrant bodies on the side of the highway Thursday. Video provided by Newsy Newsy

BERLIN — Hungarian authorities arrested four people Friday on suspicion of people-smuggling after police in Austria found the bodies of 71 people in the back of a cramped truck abandoned along the main highway from Budapest to Vienna..

The four include three Bulgarians -- one of Lebanese descent -- and an Afghan with a Hungarian identity cards, the Hungarian news agency MTI reports, quoting Budapest State Police.

Forensics experts needed a full day to determine the death toll after the truck was found on Thursday. It appeared that the truck had been abandoned for at least a day.

The dead include 59 men, eight women and four children, one of them an infant. At least one Syrian identity card was found among the victims, according to the Austrian newspaper Die Presse.

"We must assume now that these are refugees," local police chief Hans Peter Doskozil said during a news conference. "It is possible this is a Syrian refugee group."

Investigators believe the victims died after suffocating and their decomposing bodies are thought to have been in the back of the refrigerated truck, which had not ventilation, for one or two days.

Doskozil told reporters that one of the Bulgarians arrested is assumed to be the owner of the van and that it is "highly likely" the other two are "the ones who drove the vehicle."

He said there was "an indication we are talking about a Bulgarian-Hungarian human trafficking operation."

"If you look at the organization of people traffickers, these are the lowest two levels of a criminal organization," he added.

The dead were thought to be migrants seeking refuge in the European Union, which is struggling to cope with the tens of thousands of people seeking to start a new life in the region as they flee war, persecution and economic hardship, mainly in the Middle East and Africa. Many are undertaking dangerous journeys by crossing unsecured borders in the Western Balkans.

The ringleaders of the people smuggling are believed to be in Romania and Bulgaria, according to the Austrian newspaper Kronen Zeitung.

In a separate incident, Libyan officials were collecting bodies of migrants who drowned off the coast Friday, with some 200 feared dead after rescue operations were carried out a day earlier on two boats carrying some 500 people.

The United Nations estimates that about 2,400 people have died this year trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe from North Africa. Already, 300,000 people have crossed in 2015, often in vessels that are not seaworthy and in squalid conditions. In 2014, 219,000 migrants made the journey across that body of water.

In Greece, the country's coast guard said it had rescued over 1,600 migrants in the past three days, Reuters reported.

The discovery in Austria came as European leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel met in Vienna this week to discuss how to respond to the crisis that has become the EU's most pressing concern.

"This is a warning to us to tackle this migrants issue quickly and in a European spirit, which means in a spirit of solidarity, and to find solutions," Merkel said Thursday, speaking from Vienna. She said she was "shaken" by the news from Austria.

German authorities meanwhile canceled a welcoming ceremony Friday for refugees in the east German town of Heidenau amid fears of violence from far-right protesters.

Germany accounts for about 40% of all asylum-seeker applications in the EU. It also takes in far more refugees than any other EU member state.

Opinion polls show the majority of Germans favor helping these new arrivals but there have also been sporadic anti-migrant protests and threats of violence from extremists.

Merkel was heckled by far-right protesters when she visited a refugee center in Heidenau on Wednesday.

No comments: