LONDON — Austrian police said Friday that a truck found abandoned the day before contained the bodies of 71 migrants, including four children, and that three suspects in the case have been arrested in Hungary.
The dead appear likely at this point to have been Syrian refugees and to have died from suffocation, but forensic investigators are still working on establishing identities and confirming the cause of death, said Hans Peter Doskozil, chief of police in the eastern Austrian state of Burgenland. The bodies — belonging to 59 men, eight women and four children, including a 1-or 2-year-old girl and an 8-or 9-year-old boy — are partially decomposed.
Doskozil said one of the three people arrested in Hungary is apparently a Bulgarian of Lebanese descent who owned the refrigerated truck, which formerly belonged to a Slovakia-based meat-transporting firm.
The vehicle and its gruesome contents were discovered Thursday on the side of a highway connecting Austria and Hungary. Many of the thousands of migrants who have been landing in southern Europe are desperate to reach richer northern nations such as Germany and Sweden, which have taken in vastly more refugees than their neighbors and offer more generous benefits.
In recent months, migrants hoping to reach Europe have switched from perilous sea crossings from North Africa to mostly overland routes from Greece and through Balkan nations such as Macedonia and Serbia. While many are refugees from the civil war raging in Syria, others are fleeing violence, instability or poverty in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Eritrea.
Doskozil said a Syrian travel document found on one of the bodies suggests that the migrants were from that country. They do not appear to be African.
So far, the crossings of the Mediterranean from North Africa to Italy have been the deadliest, with about 2,400 people killed making the attempt this year, according to the United Nations.
That toll looked set to rise Friday as rescue operations continued off the coast of Libya, where two boats carrying 500 migrants were reported to have capsized. The Reuters news agency said that as many as 200 passengers were feared drowned.
The number of people perishing on overland crossings has been tiny in comparison. But the truckload of bodies found Thursday opened another chapter of danger and despair in Europe’s swelling migrant crisis.
The gruesome discovery, near the eastern Austrian town of Parndorf, was made Thursday morning just as the leaders of Germany and several Balkan nations were meeting less than 30 miles away in Vienna to discuss the crisis.
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, whose country is expecting a staggering 800,000 applications for asylum this year, said she was “shaken” by the news and pledged to help the poorer Southern European nations where migrants are first landing on the continent.
But the leaders were unable to settle on a unified approach to dealing with the waves of migrants and refugees arriving on their shores. The disagreement reflected the wider disarray of the 28-nation European Union’s response to the crisis.
Hungary has become a magnet for migrants because it belongs to the EU’s vast passport-free travel zone that stretches from Greece to France but that excludes most Balkan nations. The government in Budapest is trying to block migrants entering from non-EU neighbor Serbia by building a fence, including razor wire, along the nearly 110-mile-long border between the two countries.
But thousands have slipped through anyway, including 3,200 detained by Hungarian authorities Wednesday — the most in a single day for the Central European nation during the present crisis.
Earlier this month, Austrian authorities discovered more than 80 migrants locked in the back of a truck traveling on another stretch of highway in the eastern part of the country. The group had been inside the truck for 12 hours, and had punched holes in the vehicle to let in air and relief from the summer heat.
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