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Police say 71 migrants died of suffocation in food truck; 3 suspects detained

Police say 71 migrants died of suffocation in food truck; 3 suspects detained

Forensic police officers inspect a parked truck in which up to 50 migrants were found dead, on a motorway near Parndorf, Austria August 27, 2015. | REUTERS / Heinz-Peter Bader

Austrian police detained three people believed to be involved in a human smuggling operation in which 71 migrants suffocated to death in a food truck abandoned along a highway.

On Friday, law enforcement officials confirmed that authorities have arrested three people in Austria and four in Hungary who are believed to be involved in human smuggling activities. The initial death toll of 50 was increased to 71 after they counted the decomposing bodies inside the food truck, according to Fox News.

The 71 dead migrants included eight women and four children, with the youngest around 1 or 2 years old, Burgenland police chief Hans Peter Doskozil said. The truck was found on Thursday parked on the safety lane of the main highway leading to Vienna. Authorities believe that the migrants may have already been dead by the time the food truck went past the Austrian border, RT reports.

The deaths of the 71 migrants come amid an ongoing problem with thousands of people being smuggled to Europe and many of them ending dead mostly at sea. On Friday, authorities recovered dead bodies from two ships that sank off the Libyan coast. The U.N. refugee agency estimates that around 200 migrants are missing or dead, the report details.

Meanwhile, Austrian officials believe that the 71 migrants in the food truck died from suffocation, but the case is still being investigated and authorities are expecting the autopsy results in a few days. They also recovered a Syrian travel document that tells them that some of the dead migrants were trying to escape violence from their country.

Migrants who are afraid of traveling by sea opt to take the land route to Europe via the Western Balkans. They take off from Greece before traveling through Macedonia, Serbia, and Hungary, where thousands try to go past the border's razor-wire fence every day and pay smugglers to drive them to countries in the European Union, the report explains.

As of Tuesday, Hungarian police have already detained 776 suspected human smugglers this year alone. Last year, they arrested 593 in total.

U.N. refugee agency spokeswoman Melissa Fleming described the incident as a "shocking" tragedy, which reflects how ruthless human smugglers are.

"It shows they have absolutely no regard for human life, and that they are only after profit," Fox quotes Fleming. "It also shows the desperation of people seeking protection or a new life in Europe, and their only means is to submit themselves to these criminals."

Interior Minister Johanna Milk-Leitner said the food truck tragedy should be a "wake-up call" for the European Union to take action and deal with migrants rushing to move to Europe.

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