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Migrant crisis: Four arrests over Austria lorry deaths

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media captionJames Reynolds in Austria: "It wasn't designed to transport human beings"

Hungarian police say they have arrested four people over the discovery of the bodies of 71 migrants, thought to be Syrian, in a lorry in Austria.

Three of those arrested are Bulgarian and one is Afghan.

The victims included 59 men, eight women and four children who are thought to have been dead for about two days.

The decomposing bodies were discovered by Austrian police on Thursday morning in the abandoned lorry, near the Hungarian border.

Officials said the victims probably died after suffocating in the vehicle.

The lorry was towed to a customs building with refrigeration facilities where forensic teams worked through the night to examine the bodies.

The people are thought to have been dead when the vehicle crossed into Austria from Hungary. Among the victims was a girl aged between one and two years old.

media captionThe rules governing immigration to the EU - explained in 90 seconds

Analysis from the BBC's Bethany Bell in Vienna

The headline in Austria's Kurier newspaper is stark: "Who will stop this madness? Refugee tragedy on the eastern motorway".

This double-edged response to the lorry deaths reflects the feelings of many here in Austria, a country of 8.5 million which has seen a big increase in people requesting asylum, with 80,000 claims expected this year.

Its main asylum centre, at Traiskirchen, is so overcrowded that hundreds of people have been forced to sleep outside there for weeks. Amnesty International recently said conditions there were "shameful".

Many people are volunteering to help refugees. But others say the flow of migrants must be stopped. Far-right parties say there are too many foreigners in Austria already and are calling for the re-introduction of border controls.

The government says it does not want that - but it says this problem cannot be solved individually. It says Europe has to share the burden of looking after the refugees and migrants who arrive here every day.

The local Austrian police chief said a travel document found on the vehicle suggested that the group were Syrian migrants.

"Our preliminary assumption is of course that they were refugees, possibly a group of Syrian refugees," Hans Peter Doskozil, Burgenland province police chief, told reporters.

The vehicle had the branding of a Slovakian poultry company, Hyza, on it but the firm said it no longer owned the vehicle.

Mr Doskozil said it was unusual for people smugglers to use a refrigerated vehicle.

"In our preliminary investigation we found that there was no ventilation possible through the sides of the lorry," he said, adding that the victims had probably suffocated.

Hungarian police said in a statement (in Hungarian) that they had "conducted house searches... and questioned almost 20 people as witnesses".

Mr Doskozil said one of the Bulgarians arrested is assumed to be the vehicle's owner, while it is "highly likely" the other two are "the ones who drove the vehicle".

He said there was "an indication we are talking about a Bulgarian-Hungarian human trafficking operation".

"If you look at the organisation of people traffickers, these are the lowest two levels of a criminal organisation," he added.

No details have been given about the Afghan detainee.

image copyrightReuters
image captionPolice were alerted after fluid was seen leaking from the vehicle

The lorry, which has Hungarian number plates, is understood to have left Budapest on Wednesday morning.

It is believed to have been parked in the lay-by between Neusiedl and Parndorf for at least 24 hours before police discovered the bodies.

Tens of thousands of migrants from conflict-hit states in the Middle East and Africa have been trying to make their way to Europe in recent months.

Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner said on Friday that "the best solution is to find legal ways to Europe" instead of relying solely on "more border checks".

A record number of 107,500 migrants crossed the EU's borders last month.

Some of them pay large sums of money to people smugglers to get them through borders illegally.

Meanwhile, migrants continue to die as they try to reach Europe via the central Mediterranean route.

Hundreds of people are feared to have died after two vessels carrying migrants sank off the coast of Libya on Thursday.

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