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British police find 39 bodies in truck container east of London

The vehicle, which is believed to have travelled from Bulgaria, was discovered in an industrial park in Essex
Police officers cordoned off the area where the bodies were discovered in a lorry container in Grays, Essex (Reuters)

British police have found the bodies of 39 people inside the container of a truck, believed to have come from Bulgaria, at an industrial estate near London on Wednesday.

Officers said they had arrested the driver, a 25-year-old man from Northern Ireland, on suspicion of murder.

"This is a tragic incident where a large number of people have lost their lives," Essex Police said in a statement.

Police said the lorry had come from Bulgaria and arrived in the UK via Holyhead in Wales on Saturday. 

However, further investigations revealed that the lorry had travelled from the Beligium port of Zeebrugge to Purfleet, Essex, and arrived in Thurrock shortly after 12.30am.

It appears that 38 adults and one teenager have died, the force said, according to the BBC.

All the fatalities were pronounced dead at the scene, police said, and were found in an industrial park in Grays, east of London.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was "appalled" and sent his sympathies to the victims' families. 

"I am receiving regular updates and the Home Office will work closely with Essex Police as we establish exactly what has happened," he said. 

"My thoughts are with all those who lost their lives and their loved ones."

'Identification of bodies will a take long time'

Bulgaria's foreign ministry said it had been in contact with the British authorities over the incident.

"At present, it has not yet been confirmed whether the truck has a Bulgarian registration," a foreign ministry spokeswoman said.

"There is also no indication of the nationality of the human bodies found in the truck.

"Police have warned that the identification of the bodies will take a long time."

Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said Irish authorities would carry out any investigations necessary if it was established that the truck had passed through Ireland.

Officers in forensic suits were inspecting a large white container on a red truck next to warehouses at the site.

Police had sealed off the surrounding area of the estate with large green barriers as they carried out their investigation.

'Absolute tragedy'

"At this stage, we have not identified where the victims are from or their identities and we anticipate this could be a lengthy process," Essex Police Deputy Chief Constable Pippa Mills told reporters.

"This is an absolute tragedy."

Mills said finding out who the victims were was their top priority, while a key line of inquiry was determining the truck's route from Bulgaria.

Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, said the latest deaths were an unbelievable human tragedy that needed answers.

"Can we just think for a moment of what it must have been like for those 39 people, obviously in a desperate and dangerous situation, for their lives to end, suffocated to death in a container," he said.

Refugees and migrants pay smugglers large amounts of money to take them into the UK, often clandestinely in trucks.

This story has been updated