Venezuela prison battle leaves 25 dead

Twenty-five people were killed and 43 others hurt in a prison battle in Venezuela as two armed gangs vied for control of a penitentiary near Caracas, authorities said Monday.

One of the dead was a visiting relative while the 24 others were prisoners, some of whom were shot in the face at point-blank range during clashes Sunday in the Yare I prison, said minister for prison affairs Iris Varela.

The facility was back under control on Monday after the latest bout of violence in Venezuela's overcrowded prison system, where an estimated 300 people have been killed this year.

Hundreds of family members were visiting inmates when the violence broke out on Sunday. Some 900 women were still inside the prison on Monday, apparently to protect their jailed relatives.

Seventeen of the dead have been identified but fingerprints need to be taken to name the rest because those with gunshot wounds to the face could not be identified, Varela said.

Varela said the clashes -- which left 29 prisoners and 14 visiting relatives injured -- erupted after a shot was fired during a "discussion" between leaders of two factions in the prison, though the initial shot did not hit anyone.

"It was the spark that lit the fire," she said.

"Those responsible for the deaths within the prisons must answer for them," she said earlier Monday, adding that fighting was instigated by inmates "who want to maintain control through force."

Local media said the uprising may have been started by prisoners who had been transferred to Yare I from La Planta, a notoriously violent and overcrowded prison in Caracas that was closed after a weeks-long uprising in May.

The head of the non-governmental Venezuelan Prison Observatory, Humberto Prado, said that scenario was possible, because the arrival "of a large number of prisoners from La Planta increased overcrowding and tension" at Yare I.

Yare I, where President Hugo Chavez was detained after he led a failed coup in 1992, was built to hold 750 people, less than a quarter of the current 3,150 people currently detained there, Prado noted.

The government does not issue regular reports on conditions in Venezuelan prisons and does not confirm most violent incidents.

In June, it fined a private television network $2.4 million for its coverage of a bloody prison uprising in 2011.

An operation to retake the El Rodeo prison, on the outskirts of Caracas, in June 2011 left 25 people dead, and some of the inmates escaped.

After that debacle, Chavez gave Varela the task of overhauling a prison system that has 50,000 inmates crammed in facilities built to hold 14,000 people.

Human rights groups say that in the year since Chavez created the ministry of prison affairs in July 2011, more than 500 inmates have been killed in violent incidents and another 1,200 injured, more than in previous years.

The Venezuelan Prison Observatory said more than 300 inmates have died in the nation's overcrowded prisons during the first half of this year.

In July, 28 prisoners were killed and 17 injured in a prison uprising in the western city of Merida that took authorities three weeks to bring under control.

Experts say the country's prisons remain a cauldron of violence, ruled from within by gangs with easy access to weapons and beyond the control of corrupt or ineffectual guards.

The latest outbreak of violence comes amid a presidential election campaign, and opposition candidate Henrique Capriles has taken aim at Chavez in the past over his government's handling of the prisons.

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