SOFIA, Bulgaria (AP) — Bulgarian police discovered 43 migrants, including ten children, hidden in a van in the west of the country, officials said Monday, just days after authorities found the bodies of 18 migrants concealed in a lumber truck.
Prosecutor Natalia Nikolova said the 43 migrants appear to be in good health, despite being squeezed into a tight space. She didn’t provide the migrants’ nationalities.
Last week, the bodies of 18 migrants were found suffocated inside a secret compartment under a load of lumber on an abandoned truck near Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia. Another 34 migrants on the truck survived the ordeal, but were dehydrated, wet and frostbitten. All were Afghans who had entered Bulgaria from Turkey, hoping to reach Western Europe, authorities said.
Borislav Sarafov, director of Bulgaria’s National Investigation Service called last week’s incident the country’s deadliest involving migrants. He said the people were “pressed against each other like in a tin can” which had caused their slow and painful deaths, calling the incident “an extraordinary human tragedy”.
He added that the migrants perished 10-12 hours before the truck was found and that the smugglers had fled the scene after they noticed the deaths.
Bulgarian authorities have charged five suspects with involuntary manslaughter, participation in a criminal organization and people trafficking. They could face up to 15 years in prison if convicted. The alleged ringleader is in police custody in Greece where authorities have yet to decide on his extradition.
The suspects belong to an organized crime ring smuggling migrants from the border with Turkey to the Bulgaria-Serbia border, Sarafov said. Passengers paid 5,000-7,000 euros each, he said.
Bulgaria, a Balkan country of 7 million and the poorest member of the European Union, is located on a major route for migrants from the Middle East and Afghanistan seeking to enter Europe from Turkey. Most of them are using Bulgaria as a transit corridor on their way westward.