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Hungary arrests three suspects after 71 migrants found dead in truck

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HEINZ-PETER BADER/Reuters

(Read caption) Flowers and candles mark the site where 71 migrants were found dead in a truck on along Austrian highway near Pandorf.

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Hungarian police have arrested three suspects in connection with the deaths of 71 migrants discovered Thursday in an abandoned truck along a highway in eastern Austria.

Hans Peter Doskozil, chief of police in Austria's Burgenland Province where the truck was found, said Friday that two of the arrested suspects are Bulgarians and that the third has Hungarian identity papers.

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Speaking at a news conference, Mr. Doskozil said the victims likely suffocated in one of the most gruesome tragedies of Europe’s deepening migrant crisis, reports The Associated Press. The discovery coincided with a meeting by European leaders in Austria's capital, Vienna, to plan new ways to cope with the tens of thousands of migrants seeking a new life on the Continent.

The bodies of 59 men, eight women, and four children are thought to have been dead for 1-1/2 to 2 days in the refrigerated back of the truck, reports the BBC. A Syrian travel document was found with them, suggesting that at least some had come from there. 

The truck was found parked on the side of a highway that links Vienna and Budapest. Austrian authorities towed it to a refrigerated warehouse near the border with Hungary on Thursday, and forensic teams worked through the night to examine the bodies, reports the BBC. They said the victims were probably already dead when the vehicle crossed into Austria from Hungary.

The New York Times reports that news of the tragedy quickly overshadowed the summit in Vienna, raising concerns that the migrant crisis had escalated.

European Union officials have been struggling for ways to control the tens of thousands of migrants who are now reaching the Continent, without forfeiting the free movement between member countries that is a fundamental part of life in the 28-nation bloc. Now its members are confronting human traffickers who are exploiting the open borders.

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who said at a news conference “we are all shaken by this terrible news,” emphasized what she called the need for Europe to pull together and ease the migration crisis, part of the biggest wave of migrants since World War II. But the meeting ended on a discordant note with no apparent consensus on how to proceed.

A record number of 107,500 migrants crossed into the European Union last month. While some attempt the dangerous journey on their own, many pay smugglers to get them through borders illegally.

In a series on the migration crisis, The Christian Science Monitor has reported on how different countries and communities are coping with the upheaval and the limits of EU solidarity and collective action. As the Monitor's Sara Miller Llana wrote on Wednesday:

The human tide has weighed heavily on some countries and inundated swaths of European countryside or urban space – eliciting fortitude and generosity of spirit, which has been undercovered. It has also revealed a dark side to the continent: fences, tear gas, riots, and hate speech.

Today’s migrants are as poor or traumatized as those refugees during World War II, but many are also black or Muslim. They stand out in communities that have long known nothing but homogeneity. And they are entering at a time when EU citizens question what it really means to live in the 28-member union.

Austria responded to this week’s tragedy by announcing plans aimed more at blocking than assisting migrants, reports The Washington Post. The country vowed to increase border controls and impose harsher penalties on smugglers.

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But with an estimated 300 migrants attempting to cross the border every day, Doskozil said Friday that curbing the flow into Austria won’t be an easy task.

“Despite the tragic situation, we are confronted with the fact that we are expecting a massive increase” in crossings, he said, according to the Post.