Truck full of bodies found on Austrian highway

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VIENNA — At least 20 migrants were found dead Thursday in a truck parked on the shoulder of an Austrian highway leading from the Hungarian border, police said.

Police official Hans Peter Doskozil said the truck, with Hungarian license plates, was found on the shoulder of the highway. He suggested the victims had been dead for some time, telling state broadcaster ORF that the bodies appeared partially decomposed.

He said the truck was apparently abandoned Wednesday and its back door was left open, exposing the bodies to police.

Doskozil, the police chief of Burgenland province, said the state of the bodies made it difficult to say how many bodies were in the truck but estimated it could be up to 50.

Tragedy points to larger problem

The discovery of a number of dead migrants in the back of a truck in Austria, just a day after the Italian coast guard said 54 people lost their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean, has highlighted once again the scale of the migration crisis gripping Europe.

The truck concerned was on the A4 highway, which links Budapest in Hungary to the Austrian capital, Vienna, a spokesman for the Austrian Interior Ministry told CNN on Thursday.

The truck was abandoned on the side of the highway and when police stopped and opened the back of it, they found the bodies, Alexander Marakovits said. He wasn't able to say how many bodies were found.

Police are currently seeking the driver, he said.

The Italian coast guard earlier said that a total of 54 migrants were found dead on boats in the Mediterranean on Wednesday.

Another 3,000 men, women and children were rescued in multiple operations off the Libyan coast on Wednesday, the coast guard said, rescuing people from vessels ranging from rubber dinghies to fishing boats.

Bodies found in boat's hull

A Swedish coast guard vessel, operating on behalf of the European Union border agency, found 51 of the migrants who lost their lives in the hull of a large fishing boat and saved 439 other people who were on board.

It's not yet confirmed what caused the deaths, but in the past, migrants trapped on the lower decks of vessels have died of asphyxiation or been poisoned by the fumes from leaking engines. The Italian coast guard initially said 50 had died.

On the same day, the Italian coast guard found three women dead in a rubber dinghy in the Mediterranean.

A number of international ships working under the EU border agency, Frontex, also took part in the rescue operations, the Italian coast guard said.

Humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders, also known as Medecins Sans Frontieres, said its own ships also carried out rescues.

One, the Argos, was headed to Italy on Wednesday evening with more than 700 people on board, it said on Twitter.

The International Organization for Migration said the number of deaths of all migrants and refugees attempting to reach Europe by sea in 2015 stood at 2,373 as of Tuesday.

The death toll for the whole of 2014 was 3,281, and the IOM fears that this year's total could well surpass that, if boats carrying migrants continue to attempt the crossing in increasingly uncertain weather.

"Last year, from late August through the end of December, over 1,200 migrants died at sea," its news release said. "IOM is concerned that as summer turns to autumn and then winter, additional deaths at sea could well surpass 2,000 through the final third of this year."

The so-called central route, from North Africa to Italy and Malta, is the deadliest of three commonly used by traffickers who cram migrants onto often unseaworthy boats in a bid to reach European soil, the IOM said.

There have been 2,267 deaths on that route so far this year, the IOM said, with another 83 on the eastern route -- Turkey to Greece -- and 23 more on the western route between Africa and Spain, including the Canary Islands.

Those rescued so far this year at sea include Eritreans, Somalis, Sudanese, Sub-Saharan Africans, Syrians and Bangladeshis, the IOM said. While some are refugees fleeing conflict, others are making the perilous journey in hope of finding work.