Suspects in Austria truck tragedy proclaim innocence in court
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Suspects in Austria truck tragedy proclaim innocence in court

Remand extended until September 29 for four alleged human traffickers after decomposed bodies of 71 migrants found in abandoned vehicle

One (C) of four suspects is led by a Hungarian police official into the Kecskemet courtroom on August 29, 2015.  (AFP PHOTO / ATTILA KISBENEDEK)
One (C) of four suspects is led by a Hungarian police official into the Kecskemet courtroom on August 29, 2015. (AFP PHOTO / ATTILA KISBENEDEK)

Four suspected human traffickers said they were innocent Saturday as they appeared in a Hungarian court over the decomposing bodies of 71 migrants found in a truck in Austria, marking a sickening new low in Europe’s migrant crisis.

They were remanded into custody as Hungary, where the truck originated, said meanwhile that it completed a razor-wire barrier along its 175-kilometer (110-mile) frontier with Serbia in an effort to prevent thousands of migrants entering the European Union country.

Europe is struggling to find a coherent approach as its governments face a record influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing conflict in the Middle East and Africa.

Police believe the suspects who appeared in the court in Kecskemet Saturday are low-ranking members of one of the numerous, unscrupulous people-smuggling gangs that transport migrants in return for sometimes exorbitant amounts of money.

They were arrested after the truck was discovered abandoned by an Austrian motorway on Thursday. Police said the victims, believed to be mainly refugees fleeing the war in Syria, may have been dead for up to two days.

The court remanded the three Bulgarians aged 29, 30, 50 and the 28-year-old Afghan in custody until September 29.

A refrigerated truck is towed along a highway near Neusiedl am See, Austria, on August 27, 2015. (AFP/Dieter Nagl)
A refrigerated truck is towed along a highway near Neusiedl am See, Austria, on August 27, 2015. (AFP/Dieter Nagl)

Their appearance came as three “severely dehydrated” children were recovering in an Austrian hospital a day after they were rescued from a second van packed with 26 Syrians, Bangladeshis and Afghans.

The van was pulled over by Austrian police after a short chase early Friday near the German border.

“If the journey had continued the situation could probably have become critical,” a police spokesman told AFP.

Another spokesman said that the two five-year-old girls and one six-year-old boy were in “stable” condition in hospital Saturday.

The United Nations estimates 300,000 people have fled conflict and hardship in the Middle East and Africa for a better life in Europe this year.

Some 2,500 have died in the attempt, mostly while making the dangerous trip across the Mediterranean.

Libyan rescue workers said Saturday that “dozens” of people were still missing after a boat carrying around 400 would-be migrants sank Thursday off the country’s western shores.

At least 111 people were killed and a total of 198 people have been rescued.

Late Saturday the Greek government said a 17-year-old migrant had been killed during a shootout at sea between police and human smugglers as a boat carrying 70 migrants tried to enter Greek waters from Turkey.

But the discovery of the truck in Austria was a rare occurrence on European soil that highlighted the dangers faced by migrants even if they survive the Mediterranean crossing.

Hungary for one is having difficulty coping with the crisis, intercepting more than 140,000 migrants so far this year, including some 10,000 in the past week alone.

The new border barrier, consisting of three rolls of razor wire, is failing to prevent people already hardened by a treacherous journey from getting across, AFP saw in a recent visit.

But a four-meter-high (13-foot) fence is to follow, which will “also provide a defense against illegal border-crossers”, the country’s defence ministry said.

An AFP reporter on the Greece-Macedonia border said migrants were continuing Saturday to cross in groups of 50.

One of them, Ali Younes, a 65-year-old from Baghdad, sold his home in the Iraqi capital to pay a smuggler to reach Turkey through Syria. He risked his life in an inflatable boat to get to the Greek island of Samos from Turkey.

“I lived through everything: the Iran-Iraq war, the invasion of Kuwait, the sanctions period, the US occupation, the sectarian war, and now Daesh,” he told AFP, referring to the Islamic State extremist group that has seized chunks of Iraq and Syria.

Meanwhile in Germany, which expects to absorb 800,000 asylum seekers this year, between 2,000 and 4,000 people demonstrated in the eastern city of Dresden on Saturday in solidarity with refugees.

“Say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here,” they chanted.

A poll by broadcaster ZDF showed 60 percent of Germans agreed with Merkel that Europe’s biggest economy can accommodate the new arrivals.

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