Bulgarian prosecutors have charged six people in the death of 18 Afghans who suffocated in an abandoned truck near the capital, Sofia.
The bodies were found inside a vehicle on Friday in Bulgaria’s deadliest human smuggling incident as the country grapples with an increase in illicit border crossings.
The truck was carrying 52 Afghans hidden under planks of wood and packed “like in a tin can”. The group had arrived from Turkey and were heading to Western Europe via Serbia, according to initial investigations.
The 18 victims died of asphyxiation.
Six Bulgarians, including the alleged leader of the smuggling group, were charged on Saturday, Hristo Krastev, spokesman for the Sofia prosecutor’s office, told reporters.
They face up to 15 years in prison if convicted of manslaughter and involvement in organized crime and human trafficking.
One of the suspects remains at large and has been charged in absentia, while two others who were arrested are not expected to be charged.
Investigators say the truck drivers heard loud noises and banging coming from behind but only stopped later when they discovered the dead victims and fled, Deputy Prosecutor General Borislav said Sarafov.
“The people transported were curled up and pushed against each other like in a tin can… They died slowly and painfully for 30 to 60 minutes. This is an extraordinary human tragedy,” Sarafov told reporters.
Some of the 34 people who were rescued remain in hospital, with some being treated for carbon monoxide poisoning after inhaling car exhaust.
The victims, aged between 13 and 35, allegedly paid up to 7,000 euros each to the smugglers, Sarafov said.
“It was out of greed that the smugglers transported 52 people. They used to transport between 25 and 35 people at a time, at least twice a month,” he said.
The hiding places were lined with aluminum foil to make the presence of people undetectable by thermal cameras, he added.
Bulgaria, an EU member that serves as a gateway for many hoping to enter the bloc, has tried to tighten security to stop the growing number of people seeking to cross its southern border with Turkey.
The Balkan nation has also been accused of abuse by security forces trying to keep people out, with asylum seekers saying they were pushed back, locked up, stripped naked and beaten.
Bulgaria has denied the allegations.