Scores of migrants being smuggled into Austria narrowly escaped death last week by breaking open their truck door with a crowbar just one day after the same gang of traffickers had abandoned a vehicle containing 71 dead refugees, police said on Friday.
Austrian police provided details about the two ill-fated truck journeys from Hungary as Europe grapples with its biggest refugee crisis since the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, spawned in large part by conflicts in the Middle East.
Police in the eastern Austrian province of Burgenland said photos of suspected members of the human smuggling ring behind the truck with 71 dead had turned up another case in which 81 people crammed into a truck from Hungary were in lethal danger.
Both trucks were owned by the same man, a Bulgarian citizen, police said, who has been arrested along with five other suspects.
"According to their account, they were twice able to open the vehicle's side door with the help of a crowbar (in order to be able to breathe freely)," Burgenland police chief Hans Peter Doskozil told a news conference. The traffickers then set them loose near the Austrian town of Gols.
In the case involving the 71 dead migrants, police said they had suffocated in a sealed truck whose refrigeration unit was not working, probably dying quickly as they only had enough oxygen for an hour to an hour and a half.
There was no indication that the people, believed to have slowly lost consciousness, had tried to break free. None have been identified so far.
"We found a total of 17 travel documents. Based on these we have been able to determine that this was a mixed group of people. Syrian nationals, Iraqis and also Afghans are likely to have been on board," Doskozil said.
He said 40 phones had also been found and there had been contact with people who claimed to be relatives of the victims.
Among the 71 dead were eight women, two children and a family that included a baby girl and young boy. They were discovered last Thursday on a highway from the Hungarian border to Vienna after fluids from the decomposing bodies were seen seeping from the truck.
The truck's doors had been bolted shut and secured with wire, making it impossible for the refugees to escape.
Austria issued six European arrest warrants in connection with the case, prosecutors said, leading to the detention of five suspects in Hungary and one in Bulgaria. Five of those detained are Bulgarians and one is an Afghan citizen.
(By Karin Strohecker; Additional reporting by Angelika Gruber; Writing by Noah Barkin and Michael Shields; Editing by Gareth Jones) Photo credit: Lower Austria Police handout via NBC News