Up to 45 bodies were dumped along a busy forest highway on Tuesday, and a further 72 were found alive and taken to hospital.
“I haven’t seen anything like this … There were so many bodies lined up along the road. People in passing vehicles were shocked at the sight,” said Dodoma resident Fatuma Amir.
“When the driver discovered that there were people dying, he decided to throw them in the forest and run away with his vehicle,” deputy home affairs minister Pereira Ame Silima said.
Residents in central Dodoma were the first to report the deaths because of a foul smell. The deceased were taken to the hospital in Dodoma city.
“It is extremely sad and unfortunate that people die by using wrong and self-torturing means to illegally transport themselves to other destinations,” Silima said.
Survivors told officers that while they were locked inside the vehicle they had screamed to the driver to stop after several people passed out due to the lack of air, said police chief Zelothe Stephen.
When the driver finally stopped, he ordered the migrants to dump the corpses and clean the truck, but then sped off leaving the Ethiopians behind in a remote area.
“A manhunt is going on for the driver of the lorry that abandoned the Ethiopian immigrants by the roadside,” said Luppy Kung’alo, a Tanzanian police spokesman.
The east African country is a major transit route for migrants, used by smugglers to ferry Somalis and Ethiopians to Europe, and as believed in this case, South Africa.
The truck was probably on its way to the south-western border with Zambia and Malawi, officials said. Illegal immigrants are often smuggled by truckers from Tanzania’s commercial capital Dar es Salaam to border towns.
Many immigrants pay agents between $3,000 and $4,000 to reach South Africa. The illegal trip passes through Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi or Zambia, Zimbabwe or Botswana and then into South Africa. The shipping containers that the immigrants are crammed into can be changed several times before reaching South Africa.
In January, 20 Somali migrants suffocated to death as they were being smuggled in a cramped container truck through Tanzania. Their bodies were similarly dumped on the road.
At least 47 people thought to be illegal migrants from east Africa died when their boat capsized in a lake in neighbouring Malawi last Friday.
Hundreds of thousands of Somalis have fled the lawless Horn of Africa country since the collapse of a formal government two decades ago, while crippling drought hit both Somalia and Ethiopia last year.