Fire hits riot-wracked Venezuelan prison

TEAR GAS: An inmate's relative runs from a cloud of teargas fired by national guardsmen at El Rodeo I prison in Guatire, Venezuela.
TEAR GAS: An inmate's relative runs from a cloud of teargas fired by national guardsmen at El Rodeo I prison in Guatire, Venezuela.
UNFOLDING DRAMA: Relatives of inmates embrace as they cry outside of El Rodeo prison in Guatire, Venezuela where prisoners and authorities have been locked in a battle that has killed at least three people and injured many others.
UNFOLDING DRAMA: Relatives of inmates embrace as they cry outside of El Rodeo prison in Guatire, Venezuela where prisoners and authorities have been locked in a battle that has killed at least three people and injured many others.
TEAR GAS: Streams of tear gas fired by national guardsmen fall over El Rodeo I and El Rodeo II prisons in Guatire, Venezuela.
TEAR GAS: Streams of tear gas fired by national guardsmen fall over El Rodeo I and El Rodeo II prisons in Guatire, Venezuela.
ON GUARD: Armoured vehicles enter El Rodeo prison in Guatire, Venezuela, seeking to disarm inmates, days after a bloody riot, setting off gunfights with resisting inmates that left at least one inmate and two soldiers dead, and more than 18 wounded.
ON GUARD: Armoured vehicles enter El Rodeo prison in Guatire, Venezuela, seeking to disarm inmates, days after a bloody riot, setting off gunfights with resisting inmates that left at least one inmate and two soldiers dead, and more than 18 wounded.
ARMED RESPONSE: Four armoured vehicles are parked at main entrance of El Rodeo prison in Guatire, Venezuela, as authorities try to end a bloody riot.
ARMED RESPONSE: Four armoured vehicles are parked at main entrance of El Rodeo prison in Guatire, Venezuela, as authorities try to end a bloody riot.
ON FIRE: Smoke rises from El Rodeo I prison in Guatire, Venezuela, where inmates have been rioting.
ON FIRE: Smoke rises from El Rodeo I prison in Guatire, Venezuela, where inmates have been rioting.
BARRICADE: A man holding his baby walks next to a line of national guardsmen outside El Rodeo I prison in Guatire, Venezuela, where inmates are rioting.
BARRICADE: A man holding his baby walks next to a line of national guardsmen outside El Rodeo I prison in Guatire, Venezuela, where inmates are rioting.
CONSOLED: An inmate’s relative is consoled outside the El Rodeo I prison in Guatire, Venezuela.
CONSOLED: An inmate’s relative is consoled outside the El Rodeo I prison in Guatire, Venezuela.

Fire has ripped through a prison as thousands of Venezuelan troops struggled to put down a revolt by inmates as dozens of horrified relatives tried to watch the fighting.

Officials gave few descriptions about the progress of the three-day battle at the Rodeo I prison and did not say if more people had been killed or injured beyond the three dead and 18 wounded reported on the first day of the clash. Gunfire continued to rattle from the compound.

Deputy Justice Minister Nestor Reverol told state television the pre-dawn fire was caused by a short circuit, and that inmates had been evacuated before flames engulfed a building. Some relatives outside said that prisoners will cell phones had told them troops started the blaze.

Evelyn Rodriguez, 27, climbed a nearby hill for a view and gasped when she peered through binoculars to see the prison blacked by the fire.

"My husband and my brother were inside that building," Rodriguez said, trying to hold back tears. "I have no idea what has happened to them."

The violence erupted in the El Rodeo I prison as troops searched for weapons. A riot at the same prison on June 12 left 22 dead.

It was not clear how many inmates remained at the prison or how many were resisting the troops. Justice Minister Tareck El Aissami said Sunday that at least 2,500 inmates had been transferred to other prisons.

A 5000-strong security force, including 3500 National Guard troops, was joined on Saturday by 400 soldiers from an elite army paratroop unit, according to officials.

Journalists from The Associated Press watched half a dozen armored vehicles circled courtyards inside the penitentiaries on Sunday. Troops lined up along tree-covered hillsides surrounding Rodeo I and neighboring Rodeo II and repeatedly fired volleys of tear gas canisters.

Gunfire erupted sporadically throughout the day.

Venezuela's severely crowded prisons have suffered repeated violent outbursts as rival gangs often fight for control of cellblocks and sell weapons and drugs with the help of corrupt prison guards.

The country's 30 prisons were built to hold about 12,500 prisoners but instead hold about 49,000, according to the Venezuelan Prisons Observatory, a group that monitors prison conditions.

Last year, 476 peopled died and 967 people were injured in the country's prison system, according to figures compiled by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Human Rights Watch also said in a recent report that about three out of four inmates in Venezuela's prison system have yet to be sentenced due to backlogs in the country's slow-moving justice system.

AP