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Four arrested over Austria refugee truck tragedy as refugee deaths mount

Vienna: Hungary has said it had arrested four people over the discovery of the decomposing bodies of 71 refugees, believed to be Syrian, in an abandoned truck in Austria.

Hungarian police said on Friday three of the suspects held over the latest grim tragedy involving refugees seeking refuge in Europe were Bulgarians and one was Afghan. Thursday’s grisly discovery of the truck on a motorway near the Slovakia and Hungary borders – a rare occurrence on land, with most refugee deaths taking place at sea – sent shock waves through Europe.

The news of the arrests came as Libyan rescue workers recovered 76 bodies from yet another capsized boat in the Mediterranean crammed with people fleeing conflict and hardship in the Middle East and Africa. The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, said as many as 200 people on two boats were feared dead near the western port of Zuwara. Many of the victims were of Arab or African origin, a Pakistani teenager who survived by clinging to wreckage for nine hours said.

Austrian police said the truck victims were likely fleeing the war in Syria and included a toddler and three young boys. “Among these 71 people, there were 59 men, eight women and four children including a young girl one or two years old and three boys aged eight, nine or 10,” police spokesman Hans Peter Doskozil said. He said the time and cause of death still had to be determined but there was a “certain probability” they had suffocated. Doskozil said those arrested included the owner of the vehicle and two drivers, and were likely “low-ranking members… of a Bulgarian-Hungarian human-trafficking gang”.

A court on Saturday is to decide whether they can be detained beyond an initial 72-hour period. Austria’s public prosecutor Johann Fuchs said he would likely seek to have the suspects extradited.

Austrian motorway maintenance workers alerted police after noticing “decomposing body fluids” dripping from the truck, Doskozil said. The police were confronted by an overpowering stench and a mass of tangled limbs and forensics experts worked all night to clear out the vehicle. Television images showed flies buzzing around the back of the vehicle in the baking sun.

On Friday evening, Hungarians held a vigil for the victims outside Budapest’s main train station, where thousands of migrants have been sheltering for weeks