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Thursday, February 16, 2012

272 dead in Honduras prison fire


The death toll has been confirmed by officials in the Central American country on Wednesday. "We are pulling out bodies," said prisons director Danilo Orellana about the deadliest fire in years in the country s overcrowded prison system. "The situation is serious. Most have suffocated," he said, adding that the fire did not appear to have been caused by a riot. Honduran Security Minister Pompeyo Bonilla confirmed the death toll at 272 inmates, adding that there were "around 50 with burns and other injuries." "That is what our medical and legal services tell us," he told AFP at the scene of the blaze. "Unfortunately, the final toll could be much higher." Dozens of burned inmates were being taken to hospitals in the central city of Comayagua. The fire was believed to have broken out around 10:50 pm Tuesday (0450 GMT Wednesday), Orellana said, adding thatinvestigators were looking into whether it was caused by an inmate or by a short circuit. "We re bringing in all of our forensic equipment," he said. Witnesses said some of the inmates escaped the blaze by jumping from the prison rooftop, and there were reports that some of them had fled the facility and were on the loose. The prison, located some 90 kilometers (56 miles) north of the capital city of Tegucigalpa, held around 850 prisoners. It is located some 500 meters (1,650 feet) from a highway that links San Pedro Sula, the economic center of Honduras, with Tegucigalpa, the seat of the federal government. Meanwhile desperate relatives waited for word about the fate of their loved ones. At the break of dawn Wednesday there were already hundreds lined up at the prison gates. "My brother Roberto Mejia was in unit six," said an emotional Glenda Mejia. "They ve told me that the inmates from that unit are all dead," she told AFP. Next to her, Carlos Ramirez was waiting outside the facility for word about his brother Elwin, imprisoned on a murder conviction, who also was housed in unit six. "I haven t been told anything," Carlos Ramirez said, his voice breaking. It was the worst disaster to strike a penal facility in Honduras in years. Latin American prisons are notoriously overcrowded, particularly in impoverished Central American states like Honduras, which are gripped by gang violence and drug trafficking. The most recent similar disaster in Honduras, in May 2004, killed around 100 inmates during a fire at a prison in San Pedro Sula, which was blamed on structural problems at the facility. Honduras s 24 overcrowded penal facilities have room for 8,000 inmates, but the number is more than 13,000.

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