Vienna police free 24 Afghan teenagers from van with doors welded shut, arrest Romanian driver

Austrian police say they have freed 24 Afghan teenagers from a van in Vienna which had been welded shut, and arrested the Romanian driver.

VIENNA, AUSTRIA (SEPTEMBER 2, 2015) (REUTERS) – Austrian police said on Wednesday (September 2) they had freed 24 Afghan teenagers from a van in Vienna which had been welded shut and arrested the Romanian driver.

A police spokesperson said that shortly after midnight on Tuesday morning (September 1) officers had stopped a small van heading towards the centre of the Austrian capital.

The driver jumped out and ran but they were soon able to catch and arrest him, while other officers at first faced the task of trying to open the doors of the van which had been welded shut.

“At first they were not able to open the vehicle but heard people’s voices coming from the back of the van. They then broke open the doors and found 24 people penned in the back,” Thomas Keiblinger from Vienna police told Reuters TV on Wednesday morning.

“They were Afghan citizens, mainly youths, the majority of these young people were 16 or 17 years old,” he said, adding that police were shocked at what they saw when they finally managed to break open the doors.

“The storeroom of this small truck had a surface area of two metres by three metres with a height of 1.8 metres. The scene there was really awful. The people were sitting on top of each other, standing on top of each other and had no chance of opening the door themselves from inside. The doors were welded shut, the windows had bars over them. These people were not able to free themselves,” he said, adding that no fresh air was able to get into the back of the van.

Keiblinger said that if the journey had been any longer it could have been fatal for the youths, who he said did not need medical care and were taken to a police station where they were given food and water.

“None of these youths applied for asylum in Austria. This means that their goal was to get to another country, we believe Germany, and so the journey would have taken a few more hours. This would definitely have meant a life-threatening situation for these young people,” he said.

The van was registered in Romania, but Keiblinger said the police believe that the journey had started in Hungary.

They were able to catch the driver with the help of a police dog.

“The driver immediately jumped out of the vehicle and fled. The police followed him and fired a shot but the man got away. A policewoman then used her police dog and it found the man hiding. This 30-year-old Romanian was then arrested despite strong resistance,” Keiblinger said.

Thousands of migrants have drowned this year trying to reach Europe across the Mediterranean in rickety vessels, while the peril of the overland journey was hammered home when 71 dead bodies were found in an abandoned truck in Austria last week.

Austrian police have since upped checks along their borders, looking at the backs of lorries, small trucks and people carriers to try and catch smugglers.