LONDON (AP) — All 39 people found dead in a refrigerated container truck in England last week were Vietnamese nationals, British police said, as three more people were arrested in Ireland and Vietnam in the sprawling international investigation into what appears to be a people-smuggling tragedy.
British detectives initially said the victims discovered near the southeast port of Purfleet on Oct. 23 were from China, but families from Vietnam have contacted authorities there with concerns for missing relatives.
Essex Police Assistant Chief Constable Tim Smith said Friday that “at this time, we believe the victims are Vietnamese nationals, and we are in contact with the Vietnamese government.”
He said police think they have traced the relatives of some of the dead.
“There were Vietnamese believed to be among 39 migrants who were found dead in a lorry in Essex,” Vietnam’s Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh tweeted on Saturday.
“With deepest sorrows, I would like to extend deep sympathy with & sincere condolences to families of the victims,” he wrote, adding Vietnam will continue working closely with British authorities on the case.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang said the Vietnamese Ministry of Public Security and British police were working together to further identify the victims and will soon announce the results.
“Vietnam strongly condemns human trafficking activities, considering it’s a serious crime and must be accordingly punished,” she said in a statement. She said Vietnam calls on other countries in the region and in the world to strengthen activities to avoid “such a painful tragedy.”
“It’s really sad news that all 39 people are Vietnamese. I hope the authorities can confirm their names soon,” said Vo Ngoc Chuyen, the older brother of Vo Ngoc Nam, whose family fears he is among the dead.
In Dien Chau district of north-central Nghe An province, where many of the victims are believed to be from, the family of Hoang Van Tiep was shocked to hear the news.
“Until they can confirm that my brother is among the dead, my family will not give up hope,” his sister said. She said her family had no contact with her brother since Oct. 22, when he told them he was on the way to England.
British police have charged 25-year-old Maurice Robinson, from Northern Ireland, with 39 counts of manslaughter and conspiracy to traffic people. They say he drove the cab of the truck to Purfleet, where it picked up the container, which had arrived by ferry from Zeebrugge in Belgium.
Another man was arrested Friday in Ireland, and two others in Vietnam.
The two, suspected of organizing a people-smuggling operation in Vietnam, were arrested in Ha Tinh province following reports from 10 families there of missing relatives, VTV television reported.
Col. Nguyen Tien Nam, deputy chief of Ha Tinh provincial police, was quoted as saying the suspects were directly involved in the case in which people paid smugglers to be taken to England and are now feared to be among the bodies found in the container.
Police said the suspects had been organizing people smuggling in the area for several years.
In Ireland, a 22-year-old man was arrested on a British warrant. Essex Police said they had started extradition proceedings to bring him to the U.K. to face charges of manslaughter.
A spokesman for the Dublin High Court said Eamonn Harrison, of Newry in Northern Ireland, appeared in court Friday. He was ordered detained until a hearing on Nov. 11.
British officials have stepped up patrols in Purfleet and announced an agreement with Belgium to allow more British immigration officers to be based in Zeebrugge.
British police on Friday asked two other suspects, Northern Irish brothers Ronan and Christopher Hughes, to turn themselves in. Police said they had already spoken to Ronan Hughes by telephone but want to talk to the two in person.
Associated Press writers Jill Lawless in London and Hau Dinh in Hanoi, Vietnam contributed to this report.