Austria truck death suspects to appear in court

A coffin is unloaded from a truck outside a customs building with refrigeration facilities in the village of Nickelsdorf, Austria.
A coffin is unloaded from a truck outside a customs building with refrigeration facilities in the village of Nickelsdorf, Austria. REUTERS

VIENNA (AFP) - Four people arrested after the decomposing bodies of 71 migrants were found in a truck in Austria will appear before a judge in Hungary on Saturday, officials said as the discovery sent shock waves through Europe.

The truck, found on Thursday on a motorway near the Slovakia and Hungary borders, was carrying refugees believed to be fleeing the war in Syria, and included a toddler and three young boys, Austrian police said.

The grisly discovery highlighted the dangers faced by migrants fleeing conflict and hardship in the Middle East and Africa even once they reach Europe, with many putting their fate in the hands of profit-hungry people smugglers.

A court on Saturday is to decide whether the four – three Bulgarians and an Afghan, according to Hungarian police – can be detained beyond an initial 72-hour period.
 

 

Those arrested included the owner of the vehicle and two drivers, and were likely “low-ranking members... of a Bulgarian-Hungarian human trafficking gang", police spokesman Hans Peter Doskozil told a news conference.
 

 

Austria’s public prosecutor Johann Fuchs said he would likely seek to have the suspects extradited.

The news of the arrests came as Libyan rescue workers recovered 76 bodies from yet another capsized boat in the Mediterranean crammed with people.

The United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, said as many as 200 people on two boats were feared dead near the western port of Zuwara.

A Pakistani teenager who survived by clinging to wreckage for nine hours told AFP that many of the victims were of Arab or African origin.

Shefaz Hamza, his gaze cast down as he sat next to his brother at a police station near the western Libyan port of Zuwara, described watching his mother and sister die in the water.

“My little sister, someone climbed on her back and pushed her down. When I saw her for the last time, she was underwater with him on top of her,” the 17-year-old said.

“My mother and I spent nine hours in the water, holding on to a bit of wood. I kept telling her everything would be okay. But a quarter of an hour before the rescue team arrived, she passed away,” he said.

“She died in my arms. I asked the man to let me take her body with me, but he refused. My mother is dead. My little sister is dead.”

- ‘WHO WILL STOP THIS MADNESS?’ -

The discovery of the truck in Austria provoked a wave of horror across Europe.

Austrian newspaper Kurier carried a black front page with the headline: “Who will stop this madness?”

“If the stink from our car parks gets stronger perhaps we will finally understand, not just in Austria... that it is time to create safe routes to Europe, fast registration and a swift and a fair sharing out (of migrants),” said Amnesty International’s Austrian chief Heinz Patzelt.

Austrian motorway maintenance workers alerted police after noticing “decomposing body fluids” dripping from the truck, Doskozil said.

The police were confronted by an overpowering stench and a mass of tangled limbs, and forensics experts worked all night to clear out the vehicle.

Television images showed flies buzzing around the back of the vehicle in the baking sun.

“Among these 71 people, there were 59 men, eight women and four children including a young girl one or two years old and three boys aged eight, nine or 10,” police spokesman Hans Peter Doskozil told a news conference.

He said the time and cause of death still had to be determined but there was a “certain probability” they had suffocated.

On Friday evening, Hungarians held a vigil for the victims outside Budapest’s main train station, where thousands of migrants have been sheltering for weeks.

- ‘WE DON'T KNOW WHERE TO GO -

The United Nations estimates that 300,000 people have fled conflict and hardship in the Middle East and Africa for a better life in Europe this year, but 2,500 have died in the attempt, the majority during dangerous voyages across the Mediterranean in rickety boats.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon called on Friday for governments to step up their response, saying he had been “horrified and heartbroken” at the recent deaths.

Austrian Chancellor Werner Fayman and French President Francois Hollande called during a phone call for a “unified European system of asylum and a common migration policy”.

The victims in Austria were likely among the more than 100,000 people to have trekked up through the western Balkans into EU member Hungary this year.

From Hungary, which is laying a barbed-wire barrier along its border with Serbia to try to keep migrants out, many attempt to make it to richer nations like Germany and Sweden.

On Friday, Hungary’s government proposed stiffer penalties for border jumpers and people smugglers, including a three-year jail term for those caught breaching the new fence.

“We passed by sea. And the sea was just a game playing with our lives,” said Lashkari, a 30-year-old Afghan picked up by Hungarian border police Thursday after travelling for 30 days.

“I don’t think we’ve reached our final destination yet because after this we don’t know where do we go,” he told AFP.