Chile prison fire kills scores of inmates

The BBC's Gideon Long says it is believed prisoners set fire to mattresses

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A fire in a prison in the Chilean capital Santiago has left at least 81 inmates dead, officials say.

The blaze broke out in the San Miguel prison at 0530 local time (0830 GMT), with television pictures showing smoke billowing from the building.

Hundreds of inmates were evacuated, with up to 14 prisoners said to have life-threatening injuries.

President Sebastian Pinera described the prison system as "inhumane" and said reforms should be speeded up.

At the scene

Long after the fire was extinguished at the San Miguel jail, relatives outside were still seething with anger and grief.

About 5,000 people gathered at the prison gates after hearing about the blaze. Many sought information about their relatives inside.

I saw several people leaving in floods of tears after being told their loved ones were among the dead. One woman fainted in the street, and had to be revived by friends and relatives.

Some vented their anger by hurling stones and bottles at police, blaming the fire on Chile's overcrowded and often dilapidated jails.

Others pressed their faces up against the jail's perimeter fence and called out to inmates still inside. Some of those prisoners managed to put their hands though the bars of their cell windows and waved T-shirts and bedsheets in a desperate bid to show they were still alive.

Above them, the charred roof and upper walls of the San Miguel jail bore testament to the worst fire in Chile's prison history, and the deadliest blaze anywhere in Chile in more than half a century.

He said the fire was a "hugely painful tragedy".

"We cannot guarantee the number of dead will not rise," he said.

The president at one point said 83 had died, but officials later revised this figure down.

Reports said the fire broke out after a fight between rival gangs, who set mattresses on fire.

Health Minister Jaime Manalich said this was the deadliest incident in the history of the Chilean prison service.

Frantic relatives

The BBC's Gideon Long in Santiago says the fire is now under control but there are chaotic scenes as relatives wait at the prison, with police trying to control the situation.

There are up to 5,000 people outside the prison, and many relatives still do not know the fate of their loved ones.

"We have been here for hours, and they haven't told us anything," one woman said.

There was confusion earlier when officials read out partial lists of survivors, Reuters news agency said.

Some relatives reportedly screamed, assuming that inmates not mentioned on the list were dead.

But no definitive list of the dead has yet been produced, as some bodies are charred beyond recognition.

Overcrowding in Chile's jails

Prison Prisoners Capacity

Source: Fundacion Paz Ciudadana 2009

Puente Alto

1,752

630

Santiago Sur

6,237

2,446

Valparaiso

2,898

1,178

Arica

2,104

1,092

San Miguel

1,654

892

Concepcion

2,096

1,194

Antofagasta

1,155

684

Santiago

1,730

1,197

The evacuated inmates are being held in a sports ground within the prison.

Our correspondent says local media are reporting that 1,900 inmates were in the jail, although it has a capacity for only about 700.

The situation prompted President Pinera to call for an end to overcrowding.

"We cannot keep living with a prison system which is absolutely inhumane," he said.

"We are going to speed up the process to ensure our country has a humane, dignified prison system that befits a civilised country."

There were reports that prison guards had initially prevented firefighters from entering the prison, which is in the south of the capital, La Tercera newspaper said.

The television pictures showed some prisoners waving their hands through the bars of the jail as relatives screamed at security forces to allow them in to help.

An investigation is under way into the cause of the blaze.

Chile has one of the highest per capita number of prisoners in Latin America.

Map of San Miguel prison

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