Hundreds of inmates killed in prison fire in Honduras

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Manju Shukla
Date  16 Feb 2012

A fire has swept through a prison in Honduras, killing at least 300, including dozens who were trapped by the smoke and flames in their cells.

The blaze broke out around midnight Tuesday night at the prison in Comayagua, 140 kilometres north of the capital of Tegucigalpa, when a prisoner set his mattress ablaze, said Danilo Orellana, the director of the national prison system.

"Some of his cellmates said that he screamed: 'We will all die here!' And in five minutes everything burned," Orellana told reporters.

He did not speculate on the prisoner's motivation.

Lucy Marder, head of forensic services in the town of Comayagua, told reporters that there were 852 inmates in the prison. It's thought that some 475 escaped during the fire.

Comayagua fire department spokesman Josue Garcia said he saw "hellish" scenes while trying to put out the fire.

"Some 100 prisoners were burned to death or suffocated in their cells," he said.

Garcia said many prisoners were trapped because the guards who had the keys to their cells could not be found in time.

Marder said 21 injured people were taken to hospital as she warned that the death toll could rise.

Local reports say the prison was completely destroyed by the blaze.

Angry relatives of the dead inmates tried to storm the gates of the prison Wednesday morning to recover the remains, witnesses told The Associated Press, but the crowds were driven back by police firing tear gas.

A local TV station showed images of dozens of relatives hurling rocks at officers.

Marder said it would take months to identify victims since some were burned beyond recognition, adding that DNA tests would be required in some cases.

According to the United Nations, Honduras has one of the highest murder rates in the world.

Local journalist Evangelina Varquero told CTV News Channel that many of the prisons in the country of 7.6 million are overcrowded.

"We have 24 prisons here with a capacity of 8,000 inmates, but the real number is 13,000. As an example, the prison in Comayagua… has a capacity for 450, but the real number of inmates inside was 800 or so -- so about twice the capacity," she said from Tegucigalpa.

In 2004, a fire killed more than 100 gang members in a badly overcrowded prison in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. That fire was thought to have been caused by an electrical short circuit on a refrigerator.

A year earlier, 68 people, including guards and visitors, died in a violent clash between gang members at a ramshackle jail at El Porvenir, on Honduras's north coast.

Government officials have repeatedly promised to improve conditions, but human rights groups say little has been done.

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