Austria lorry tragedy victims believed to be Syrian migrants

Police said three people have been arrested over the gruesome discovery of 71 bodies including a toddler, three young boys and eight women.

The bodies of the migrants found dead in an abandoned lorry are loaded in to a van at the Department of Forensic Medicine at the Medical University of Vienna. Dieter Nagl / AFP Photo
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VIENNA // Austrian police said Friday three people have been arrested over the gruesome discovery of 71 bodies in an abandoned lorry, with the victims believed to be Syrians.

A toddler, three young boys and eight women were among the dead in the latest tragedy in Europe’s migrant crisis.

Another 76 bodies were recovered in the Mediterranean off Libya after yet another boat crammed with migrants sank, while a Swedish coastguard ship docked in Sicily carrying a grim cargo of 52 dead.

Austrian police spokesman Hans Peter Doskozil said Syrian travel documents were found in the lorry abandoned on a motorway near the Hungarian border, suggesting the group were “likely” Syrians.

“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,” Mr Doskozil said.

He said three people were in custody in Hungary — believed to be the lorry owner and two drivers.

Austrian motorway maintenance workers first saw the 7.5-tonne refrigerated poultry lorry and noticed “decomposing body fluids” dripping from the vehicle, Mr Doskozil said.

Police were confronted by an overpowering stench and a mass of tangled limbs in the lorry and forensics experts worked all night to clear out the vehicle, which had Hungarian plates.

The state of the corpses suggested that those inside had been dead for some time. Television images showed flies buzzing around the back of the vehicle in the baking sun.

Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, is in Austria for a summit with Balkan leaders on Europe’s migrant crisis on Thursday, said all those present was “shaken” by the “horrible” news.

“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,” she said.

European Union leaders have struggled to get to grips with a crisis that has seen nearly 340,000 migrants cross the bloc’s borders this year — not counting August — many from Iraq and Syria.

Millions of other refugees have sought refuge in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan.

“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 Heinz Patzelt, Amnesty International’s Austrian chief.

The United Nations said Friday that the number of refugees and migrants risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean to Europe has soared past 300,000 so far this year.

Over 2,500 men, women and children have drowned trying to reach EU nations after rickety overcrowded boats operated by often unscrupulous traffickers capsized.

In the latest disaster at sea, at least 76 people died after a ship carrying hundreds of migrants sank off the coast of Libya, a spokesman for the Libyan Red Crescent said Friday, with 198 rescued.

But the events in Austria have brought home that even when migrants make it across the Mediterranean, their troubles are far from over, with many forced to put their fate in the hands of profit-hungry people-smugglers.

Since the lorry had Hungarian plates, the victims were highly 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 be followed by a four-metre high fence, many migrants try to make it — via Austria — to richer nations like Germany and Sweden.

“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 on Thursday night 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 said.

* Agencies