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Homicide probe into container death

An international investigation is under way into a man’s death after a shipping container full of immigrants arrived at the Port of Tilbury.

Police are trying to piece together how the 35 men, women and children came to be in the container, which arrived at the Essex dockyard on a P&O Ferries container ship from Zeebrugge in Belgium this morning.

The group, all thought to be from the Indian subcontinent, were rescued after port authorities heard banging and screaming from inside the container at around 6.30am.

One man died and the others were taken to hospital suffering from hypothermia and dehydration.

Superintendent Trevor Roe, from Essex Police, said the victims were now recovering “fairly quickly” and that no one else had been discovered hiding aboard the ferry, the Norstream.

Describing them as victims of “people trafficking”, Mr Roe said they had been in the container a “significant amount of time” and that now police were working with international agencies to establish their movements prior to arriving in the UK.

He said : “We understand that the occupants of the container are from the Indian states. Exactly where they travelled from and their intended destination remains unclear.

“My understanding on the update of the 35 people is this – they are recovering fairly quickly in most cases and are being detained under immigration powers and will be taken to a reception centre.

“A handful of individuals might be kept in overnight for observation but my understanding is most of the persons are recovering well.

“Once the victims – and I will call them victims – of this crime, people trafficking – we need to understand the origin of that, and we need to establish through investigation what offences have been committed.”

Investigators have begun tracking the movements of the container, which was one of around 50 on board, and have made “good progress”, Mr Roe said, adding: “That is a key line of inquiry.”

Police have yet to confirm where the shipping container came from, but Mr Roe said the investigation will “span a number of countries”.

However the BBC reported that Belgian police believe they have identified a lorry which delivered the container to Zeebrugge on CCTV footage, but currently have no information about where it originated from.

P&O Ferries told the Press Association the commercial vessel arrived from Zeebrugge at around 6am.

Natalie Hardy, from the firm, said the ship was scheduled to leave Belgium last night at 10pm and arrive at Tilbury today at 6am.

Mr Roe earlier said police were treating the incident as a “homicide investigation” after the man’s death, and said Interpol and other international agencies were involved.

He said: “It is a homicide investigation… we will be looking to see where the origin and the gangs or whoever may (be) involved in this conspiracy to bring these people in this way over to this country. Clearly we need to try and bring them to justice.”

Asked to clarify the nature of the homicide investigation, police said charges could include murder and manslaughter, although there was no suggestion anyone on the container was a suspect.

The superintendent added: “Nothing has been ruled out. We need to speak to the people in the container, where they have come from, what their motivation is and who’s involved.”

Ms Hardy said the container arrived on the quay at Zeebrugge yesterday at 6.56pm and was loaded on to the ferry at 8.07pm.

Emergency services were called to the port and declared a “major incident” after dock staff heard screaming and banging coming from the container.

Mr Roe said that once the door on the container was opened those inside were extracted “very quickly”.

One man died at the scene while 18 were taken to Basildon Hospital with dehydration and hypothermia, two in a serious but not life-threatening condition.

They have responded well to treatment and the 11 adults and seven children are now “medically fit enough” to be released, a hospital spokeswoman said.

Nine people were taken to the Royal London Whitechapel hospital, while a further seven were taken to Southend Hospital, all with the same ailments.

All of those found in the container were conscious when it was opened, apart from the man who later died.

No information has been released about the ages of any of the people or the relationship between them.

Mr Roe said there was no indication that those on board were suffering with a specific virus, but said tests were being carried out at hospital.

Public Health England has said it was not involved with the incident.

A spokeswoman said: “If it was Ebola, health care professionals are so alert at the moment to signs and symptoms that should there have been anyone who was showing symptoms we would have been notified immediately.

“I think we can be confident that we are not dealing with that.”

Officials are now planning to interview those found in the container at a reception centre after they are released from hospital, before being referred to the UK Border Agencies.

Police said there are “language issues” and interpreters will be brought in, and that only one of those found on the container has arrived at the centre so far.

Officers have set up a “casualty bureau” hotline for anyone concerned about relatives. The numbers are 0800 0560944 or 0207 1580010 if dialling from outside the UK.

James Brokenshire, immigration and security minister, said the incident was a “reminder of the often devastating human consequences of illegal migration”.

He said: “We know that criminal gangs are involved in what amounts to a brutal trade in human lives. We also know that illegal migration is a Europe-wide issue.

“That is why we work closely and collaboratively with law enforcement and port authorities, in neighbouring countries, to target criminal networks and ensure that the organised gangs behind trafficking and people smuggling can’t operate with impunity.

“This incident is now a criminal investigation. Border Force officers are fully engaged with Essex police and the Tilbury port authorities as the necessary steps are taken towards bringing those responsible to justice.

“Local NHS staff have been providing the adults and children with the urgent care they need.”

According to the website MarineTraffic.com, the 180m by 25.5m (590ft by 83ft) Norstream was built in 1999 and is registered in the Netherlands.

The Port of Tilbury’s website describes it as an “ideal location to serve the markets of continental Europe as well as the British Isles” and the “main gateway to Europe”.

It says the port’s total cargo traffic has tripled from 14 million tonnes in 1985 to 43.5 million in 2012.

Shadow immigration minister David Hanson said: “The tragic death at Tilbury is a stark reminder of the human consequences of the trafficking trade and why we need now to take effective action in the House of Commons to bring this to an end.

“It is important that we also continue to put in place effective measures across Europe to identify those who are involved in this trade before individuals reach the UK.”

Belgian authorities believe they have identified the lorry which delivered the container to the Zeebrugge port after inspecting the site and scouring CCTV for clues, the BBC reported, though it is still not known where the lorry came from.

Chief Inspector Peter De Waele from the Belgian police said: “The Belgian civil police is checking all the images and my colleagues are very, very hopeful that we find the truck who put the container in Zeebrugge.

“I think it is very, very important that we have the identification of that truck and also of the driver.”

P&O Ferries spokeswoman Ms Hardy said the Norstream left Tilbury earlier after returning to normal operations.

She said: “The Norstream left the UK at 7pm. It was due to leave at 2pm but because of the situation today she left later.

“She is en route to Zeebrugge overnight and normal operations have now resumed.”

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