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Death toll of migrants in truck on Austria highway tops 70

Death toll of migrants in truck on Austria highway tops 70
Forensic experts investigate a truck in which at least 20 migrants were found dead on an Austrian highway on Aug. 27. (Roland Schlager / European Pressphoto Agency)

At first the police thought there'd been an accident. But as they drew closer, blood dripping from the truck and a terrible stench warned them that the reality might be worse.

It was. Inside the vehicle, found abandoned on an Austrian highway Thursday, were the partially decomposed bodies of more than 70 migrants. They were the latest additions to a mounting tally of people literally dying to get to Europe, part of possibly the biggest refugee crisis to hit the continent since World War II.

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The discovery occurred less than 30 miles from where the leaders of Germany, Austria and several Balkan nations were meeting in Vienna to discuss how to cope with the growing tide of humanity turning up in their countries. German Chancellor Angela Merkel emerged from the summit “shaken by the awful news,” which she said “reminds us that we in Europe need to tackle the problem quickly and find solutions in the spirit of solidarity.”

On Friday, rescue operations continued in the Mediterranean off the coast of Libya, where two boats reported to be carrying as many as 500 migrants and apparently bound for Italy capsized. The Reuters news agency said that as many as 200 are feared dead.

Austrian authorities said that an exact count of the bodies in the truck was difficult because of their state of decay. A cause of death has still to be established, with suffocation as one possibility.

"Today is a dark day," Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner said, according to the Austrian newspaper Kronen Zeitung.

She described the presumed human traffickers who had left the truck as despicable and that they "belong behind bars."

The truck was found parked near the towns of Parndorf and Neusiedl, on the shoulder of a highway connecting Austria and Hungary. It bore Hungarian license plates and appeared to be a refrigerated truck used for transporting chicken.

Hungary has become a prime destination for thousands of migrants who see the country as a gateway to richer member states of the European Union, such as Germany and Sweden. Once inside Hungary, visitors and residents don’t need passports to travel to most of the other 27 EU nations.

The government in Budapest said it detained more than 3,200 people crossing into Hungary on Wednesday -- a record for the Central European nation in the current crisis.

Hundreds of thousands of people, often fleeing violence and instability in the Middle East, South Asia and Africa, have entered Europe illegally this year. Many are Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans hoping to be granted political asylum.

Crossing the Mediterranean from Turkey to Greece, then heading overland through Balkan nations such as Serbia on their way to Germany and Hungary has become a widely traveled route. The influx has overwhelmed authorities at border crossings and sparked tension between European governments.

In Vienna, leaders of some of those governments met to try to forge a common approach to the crisis. No solutions were announced, but Merkel pledged German support for the other entry-point nations, which are some of Europe's poorest countries and ill-equipped to deal with the large numbers of migrants arriving on their shores.

"Unless we have a European answer to this crisis, no one should be under any illusion that this will be solved," Macedonian Foreign Minister Nikola Poposki said.

But Merkel is under pressure at home as well. Germany expects an astonishing 800,000 asylum requests this year, more than any other EU nation, and has witnessed a number of protests and arson attacks on refugee centers.

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Attendees at the Vienna summit held a moment of silence for the migrants whose bodies were found in the roadside truck Thursday. The discovery followed the news Wednesday that 50 migrants had been found dead in the hold of a boat off the coast of Libya, another popular launching point for people trying to reach Europe.

“Today, refugees lost the lives they had tried to save by escaping, but lost them in the hand of traffickers,” Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann said.

The truck apparently once belonged to the Slovakian meat company Hyza. Parent company Agrofert Holding said in a statement on its website that it had sold the truck last year and was no longer associated with the vehicle.

Earlier this month, more than 80 migrants were discovered locked in the back of a truck traveling on another stretch of highway in eastern Austria. The migrants, including children and a woman who was eight months pregnant, had been inside the truck for 12 hours in sweltering temperatures and had punched holes in the vehicle to let in air.

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