LOKORSKO (AFP) – Bulgarian authorities on Friday found the bodies of 18 people who suffocated in a truck smuggling them through the country.
Bulgaria’s deadliest such incident comes as the Balkan nation struggles with an increase in illicit border crossings.
The truck was transporting 52 migrants “hidden under some wood”, officials said.
Locals alerted the police, who found the truck near the village of Lokorsko, 20 kilometres northeast of the capital Sofia.
Investigators discovered a gruesome scene with bodies scattered on the grass around the vehicle.
“According to initial reports, they died from asphyxia – too many people in too small a place,” Deputy Prosecutor General Borislav Sarafov told AFP.
“Given the number of victims, this is the deadliest incident with migrants in Bulgaria,” he added.
Sarafov said the victims had died 10 to 12 hours before their bodies were recovered, with the smugglers fleeing once they noticed the deaths. Four Bulgarians have been detained as suspects in the case.
Thirty-four people found alive were taken to hospital.
“They were cold and drenched, and they certainly had not eaten for a few days,” Health Minister Asen Medjidiev told journalists earlier.
The Health Ministry said the dead included a child thought to be six or seven years old, but Sarafov said the youngest victim was a teenager.
Based on initial information, those on the truck originated from Afghanistan, he added.
Coming from Turkiye, the group “entered Bulgaria a few days ago”, crossing the border fence in the southeastern Yambol region, Sarafov added. European Union (EU)-member Bulgaria, which serves as a gateway into the bloc, has been trying to tighten security to stop a rising number of people seeking to cross the border. The country has stepped up controls along the 234-kilometre barbed wire fence covering almost the entire border.