BERLIN –Austrian authorities on Thursday launched an international probe into the deaths of up to 50 suspected migrants found in the back of an abandoned truck, with officials still struggling to count the badly decomposed corpses in a crime that quickly touched off a new round of recriminations over Europe’s management of its escalating refugee crisis.
The bodies were discovered shortly before noon local time after a highway patrol officer investigated a foul liquid seeping out of truck’s cargo hold on the main expressway between Vienna and Budapest. The incident came as top European officials were huddling in the Austrian capital, partly to discuss the record surge of refugees pouring into Europe from wartorn nations in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.
European nations, however, remain divided over how much responsibility to take for the safe passage of those making desperate bids for asylum in the region even as the death toll – on land and sea — continues to rise.
Speaking in Vienna, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she was “shaken by the terrible news that more than 50 people have lost their lives because they ended up in a situation where traffickers did not care about this life.”
“This reminds us that we must tackle the issue of immigration quickly and in a European spirit,” she said. “That means in a spirit of solidarity – to find solutions.”
Austrian officials were searching for the driver and any witnesses, as well as conducting an international probe. The truck discovered Thursday had a temporary Hungarian license plate. The side of the 7.5-ton truck was emblazoned with the logo of a Slovakian sausage company, which said it sold the truck back in 2014.
Hungarian officials, however, said the truck’s license plate was registered to a Romanian citizen from the city of Kecskemet. Neither they nor Austrian officials disclosed the name of the owner, although Hungarian officials said they were now also investigating the case.
Hans-Peter Doskozil, chief of police for the eastern Austrian state of Burgenland, said the bodies were being kept on the truck, which was brought to a refrigerated storage facility in the city of Nickelsdorf to begin the grisly process of establishing the number of victims.
Doskozil said the suspected migrants appeared to have been dead for at least 36 hours, but possibly longer. Given the recent summer heat, the bodies were so decomposed that officials could not immediately determine whether there were women and children among the causalities.
Highway tolling booth cameras registered the truck on the Hungarian side of the border at 9 p.m. on Wednesday, and then again at 5 a.m. on Thursday, suggesting, Doskozil said, that the truck had crossed into Austria sometime overnight.