The 71 bodies found in an abandoned truck on an Austrian motorway were likely to be Syrians and included four children, Austrian police said Friday.
“Among these 71 people, there were 59 men, eight women and four children including a young girl one or two years old,” police spokesman Hans Peter Doskozil said.
“There was also a Syrian travel document found so of course our first assumption is that these people were migrants, and likely a group of Syrian migrants. We can rule out that they were Africans,” he told a news conference.
Doskozil also said that three people were in custody in Hungary over the tragedy — believed to be the owner of the truck found on a motorway lay-by and two others who were driving.
One is a Bulgarian citizen of Lebanese origin believed to be the owner of the vehicle.
The others — a Bulgarian and another with Hungarian documents — are “pretty certain to be those who drove the vehicle,” Doskozil said. He said the victims had likely suffocated to death.
Doskozil, chief of police in Austria’s eastern Burgenland province where the tragedy occurred, gave both the death toll and the cause of death Friday at a news conference in the city of Eisenstadt.
Austrian motorway maintenance workers first saw the poultry truck on Thursday and noticed “decomposing body fluids” dripping from the vehicle, police spokesman Hans Peter Doskozil said.
Police then briefly opened the rear doors and after being confronted by an overpowering stench and a mass of tangled limbs slammed them shut again and took the truck away for proper examination.
Forensics experts worked all night to clear out of the vehicle seeking to identify the bodies.
The state of the bodies inside suggests that those inside had been dead for some time. Television images showed flies buzzing around the back of the vehicle in the baking sun.
Thirty bodies were also recovered in the Mediterranean off Libya on Thursday after yet another boat crammed with migrants sank, while a Swedish coastguard ship docked in Sicily with a grim cargo of 52 dead.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, 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,” Merkel said.
“Today is a dark day… This tragedy affects us all deeply,” Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner told a press conference.
Mikl-Leitner vowed to crack down on the people who pocket exorbitant sums to arrange migrants’ passage to Europe, and then often leave them stranded en route.
“Human traffickers are criminals,” she said.
Austrian newspaper Kurier carried a black front page on Thursday with the headline: “Who will stop this madness?”
The European Union’s 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 hotspots like Iraq and Syria.
Millions of other refugees have sought refuge in places like Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan.
The number of refugees and migrants risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean to Europe has soared past 300,000 this year, and some 2,500 more have died trying, the UN said Friday.
Nearly 200,000 people had landed in Greece since January, while another 110,000 had made it to Italy, UN refugee agency spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said, compared to some 219,000 last year.