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Britain tries to identify 39 bodies found in truck

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London (AFP)

Investigators prepared Friday to start the first autopsies on the bodies of 39 people believed to be Chinese nationals found dead in a refrigerated truck, in a case that has shocked Britain.

The first 11 corpses were recovered from the trailer on Thursday and taken to a nearby hospital. Post-mortem examinations will attempt to establish how the victims died.

Ambulances had been called to a parked-up truck in an industrial zone in Grays, east of London, early Wednesday but all 39 victims inside were already dead.

The refrigerated trailer had arrived at nearby Purfleet on the River Thames estuary on a ferry from the Belgian port of Zeebrugge just over an hour before ambulance crews called the police at 1:40 am.

The truck which collected the trailer had left the port 35 minutes before that call.

Detectives arrested the truck driver, a 25-year-old man from Northern Ireland, on suspicion of murder. They were continuing to question him on Friday.

Police said they believed all the victims -- eight women and 31 men -- were Chinese nationals.

"The process of victim recovery under the Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) process is likely to take some time," Essex Police said.

"The next stages will be for post-mortem examinations to be carried out."

The internationally-standard DVI process is being carried out in liaison with the local coroner, the official responsible for establishing the cause of death.

Detectives have also searched three addresses in Northern Ireland.

- Tracing the route -

The police investigation is Britain's largest murder probe since the 2005 London suicide bombings.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson described Wednesday's discovery as an "unimaginable tragedy".

Questions have been raised about when the victims entered the refrigerated trailer, where temperatures can be as low as minus 25 degrees Celsius (minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit).

The crossing to Purfleet from Zeebrugge, one of the world's busiest ports for cargo on trucks, takes nine to 12 hours.

Belgian investigators were working to establish where the trailer came from before reaching the port.

"We have ways to reconstruct the route of the container but it's not instantaneous, it can take time," Eric Van Duyse, spokesman for the Belgian federal prosecutor's office, told AFP.

- People-trafficking trade -

The Times newspaper said Friday that the fate of the victims should reinvigorate attempts to tackle people-smuggling, which are being outpaced by criminal gangs.

"The latest catastrophe should renew efforts to tackle problems that are hiding in plain sight," the daily said in its editorial.

Hua Po, a Beijing-based political analyst, said the flow of Chinese workers to Europe has gone up as "China's own policy has become more and more conservative and closed" under President Xi Jinping.

"The survival of private enterprises is becoming more and more difficult, resulting in an increase in the number of unemployed people," Po told AFP.

According to China's state-run Global Times newspaper on Friday, many Chinese immigrants leave from Fujian, and their destinations are usually the United States, Britain, Western Europe or Japan.

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