SCMP Thursday, June 22, 2000

More arrests made in truck-death inquiries

ASSOCIATED PRESS in London


Updated at 11.05am:
Police were quizzing suspects in Belgium, the Netherlands and Britain on Thursday as they attempted to trace the route of a people-smuggling operation that led to the deaths of 58 Chinese migrants during a doomed bid to reach Britain.

The 58 victims, along with two survivors, aged in their 20s, were discovered late Sunday amid a cargo of tomatoes in an airtight truck container. The victims died of respiratory failure.

Police in the English port of Dover, where the bodies were found, said they were holding two London-based Chinese suspected of being involved in the smuggling gang.

The pair, a man and a woman, were not believed to have played a senior role.

''We're not talking about Mr. Big here,'' said a police source quoted in The Guardian newspaper on Thursday.

Belgian and British police were checking fingerprints of a group of Chinese migrants fitting the description of the victims who were detained in April in two Belgian villages, Bornem and Puurs.

After fingerprinting the group, Belgian authorities ordered them to leave, and placed them unescorted on a train to Antwerp.

The migrants simply disappeared, and some may have ended up among the victims at Dover.

Belgian authorities were still holding three Asian men arrested after the April discovery, London's Times newspaper reported Thursday.

The public prosecutor's office in Mechelen said the three were awaiting trial on charges of human trafficking and making false passports. A fourth man had also been arrested but later was released.

None of the dead has yet been positively identified, police in Britain's Kent county said on Wednesday.

Tan Wah-piow, a London lawyer who represents Chinese asylum-seekers, said he had received approaches from dozens of illegal immigrants from China's Fujian province who could be key to identifying the victims, but he said they were afraid to come forward for fear of deportation.

''My clients are in a gray area,'' he was quoted in the The Guardian as saying. ''Some of them are awaiting the result of asylum applications and others have been refused asylum but have not yet departed.

''What is required of the Home Office is a political, humanitarian decision to grant exceptional leave to remain to anyone who comes forward with information that can help the police identify these people.''

Dutch police on Wednesday arrested the owner of the trucking company that carried the illegal immigrants to their deaths. The man, identified earlier as Arie van der Spek, gave himself up on Tuesday night.

A 55-year-old man is also under arrest in the Netherlands, and police are interrogating the truck's Dutch driver at Dover.

The truck that carried the 58 to their deaths was so full that eight other stowaways were turned away.

Mr Tan said one of the eight had called his family in China's Fujian province with the news that he had not made the disastrous final leg of the journey to England.

''Sixty-eight people were supposed to board that truck, but eight were bumped off because it was so full,'' Mr Tan said in a telephone interview.

''One of them called his family when he heard of the deaths to let them know that he was alright. He'd been swearing and cursing when he wasn't allowed on the truck.''

The two survivors, who remained hospitalised under guard, were briefly questioned on Wednesday by specially trained police officers using interpreters, Kent police said.

Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair told Parliament on Wednesday that the tragedy ''emphasises yet again the need to take action at an international and, in particular, at a European level.''