Bodies of 18 Afghan migrants who died while being smuggled into Bulgaria returned to Kabul

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The bodies of 18 Afghan migrants who died while being smuggled into Bulgaria were returned to Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, on Wednesday, a spokesman for the Taliban government's Foreign Ministry said.

Bulgarian authorities discovered the bodies in a secret compartment below a load of lumber in the back of a truck left on a highway not far from the capital, Sofia, in February.

They confirmed all 18 had died of suffocation. Bulgarian authorities detained seven people in connection to the deaths. The director of Bulgaria’s National Investigation Service described the case as the country’s deadliest involving migrants.

Borislav Sarafov, the director, said the migrants were “pressed against each other like in a tin can” which had caused their slow and painful deaths. He described it as “an extraordinary human tragedy.”

The ministry's deputy spokesman in Kabul, Zia Ahmad Takal, said his government paid for the repatriation of the bodies. He blamed the Bulgarian legal process for their delayed return and the “cruel banking restrictions” imposed on Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover in August 2021 following the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces from the country.

Takal said the bodies were handed back to the families and urged Afghans not to risk their lives on illegal smuggling routes.

Another 34 Afghan migrants on the same truck survived the ordeal, but they were dehydrated and suffered frostbite. They had entered Bulgaria from Turkey, hoping to reach Western Europe.

Since the Taliban took over Afghanistan, they have imposed measures in line with their interpretation of Islamic law, or Sharia.

They have barred women from public spaces and banned girls education beyond the sixth grade. The international community has decried the Taliban's actions, leading to the country's further isolation as it faces an economic crisis and drought threat.