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Venezuela police cells fire kills 68

China Daily | Updated: 2018-03-30 07:33

Some burned to death, others choked after setting blaze

CARACAS - A total of 68 people died on Wednesday during an attempted jailbreak in Venezuela after a fire engulfed police holding cells in one of the worst tragedies in years in a overcrowded prison system.

Attorney General Tarek William Saab gave the death toll in the pre-dawn mayhem at the police headquarters in northern Carabobo state, blaming a fire thought to have been started deliberately.

The dead included two women who were visiting the jail, the attorney general said, adding that four prosecutors have been named to investigate.

An investigation would be launched immediately to clarify what had happened, he said.

Angry relatives fought with police outside the facility on Wednesday after being unable to get any information on casualties from Wednesday's fire, which townspeople said erupted after a disturbance involving detainees.

With tears streaking cheeks, people waiting outside the station on Wednesday said they feared the worst for their loved ones.

"I don't know if my son is dead or alive!" cried Aida Parra, who said she last saw her son the previous day, when she took food to him.

Some people buried their faces in their hands. Others had to be supported by friends and family as they collapsed in despair. Some wept quietly and clutched their hands in prayer.

"I am a desperate mother. My son has been here a week. They have not given any information," Dora Blanco told local media.

Carlos Nieto, head of a prisoners' rights group called Una Ventana a la Libertad (A Window on Freedom), said that some prisoners burned to death and others choked after setting fire to mattresses and stealing a guard's gun in an attempt to break out.

Venezuela's prisons suffer from dire overcrowding and a shortage of basic supplies, struggling under the deepening economic crisis that is gripping the once-wealthy oil-producing country.

Lack of space

Because of the lack of space in penitentiaries, convicts are often sent to police holding cells like the ones in Carabobo, meant to be used as temporary pens for suspects facing charges or court hearings, where detainees are supposed to spend a maximum of 48 hours.

Nieto's association estimated that the temporary detention centers were overfilled by five times their capacity.

And what happened on Wednesday in Carabobo is not an isolated incident, he added.

"All the police stations in Venezuela are facing similar or worse conditions of overcrowding, lack of food and disease," he said.

Two weeks ago, 58 detainees escaped holding cells on Margarita Island, a favored tourist spot, after punching a hole in their facility's wall. They were all soon recaptured.

In August 2017, a riot left 37 dead and 14 wounded in police cells in the southern state of Amazonas, while an April 2017 clash between rival gangs left 12 dead and 11 injured in the Puente Ayala prison in the eastern city of Barcelona.

A month before that, the remains of 14 people were found in a mass grave in the General Penitentiary of Venezuela, in San Juan de Los Morros in the country's center.

Afp - Ap - Xinhua

 Venezuela police cells fire kills 68

Relatives of inmates held at the General Command of the Carabobo Police react as they wait outside a prison, where a fire occurred in Valencia, Venezuela, on Wednesday.Carlos Garcia Rawlins / Reuters

(China Daily 03/30/2018 page12)

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