Honduras prison fire kills hundreds

The BBC's Will Grant on what is known about the prison and the fire's causes

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At least 300 prisoners have been killed after a massive fire swept through a jail in Honduras, officials say.

Many victims were burned or suffocated to death in their cells in Comayagua, north of the capital Tegucigalpa.

The officials say at least 300 are confirmed dead, but a further 56 inmates, out of the 853 in the prison, are missing and presumed dead.

Relatives of prisoners clashed with police as they tried to force their way into the prison, desperate for news.

Police responded by firing shots into the air and tear gas.

An inquiry is under way whether the blaze was caused by rioting or an electrical fault.

Honduran President Lobo pledged a "full and transparent" investigation into the "lamentable and unacceptable" tragedy.

He said local and national prison authorities would be suspended while the inquiry was conducted.

Police fire warning shots as inmates' relatives throw stones at them in Comayagua Police fired tear gas as relatives tried to break into the prison's main building
'Hellish' scenes

The fire broke out late on Tuesday night and took more than an hour to be brought under control.

Dozens of prisoners died trapped in their cells and were burned beyond recognition.

Fire survivor: 'We had to break on to the roof to be able to get out'

Comayagua firefighters' spokesman Josue Garcia said there were "hellish" scenes at the prison and that desperate inmates had rioted in a bid to escape the flames.

"We couldn't get them out because we didn't have the keys and couldn't find the guards who had them," he said.

One prisoner, who managed to escape, later told reporters that he first had heard "the screams of the ones (inmates) on fire and everyone just started fearing for their lives".

"The only thing that we were able to do was start breaking the roof apart so we could go out from above. We started ripping apart the ceiling above us."

Lucy Marder, who heads the forensic services in Comayagua, said that 356 people on the prison roster were unaccounted for.

Recent deadliest prison fires

  • Dec 2010 - 81 are killed at Santiago's jail in Chile. The fire started during a fight between rival gangs
  • Nov 10 - 16 die at Ilobasco's juvenile prison, El Salvador, in the blaze blamed on an electrical short-circuit
  • May 04 - 107 die at San Pedro Sula's jail, Honduras. An electrical fault reportedly caused the fire
  • Sept 03 - 67 inmates die at Riyadh's prison in Saudi Arabia. The cause is unknown

"The majority could be dead, though others could have suffered burns, escaped or survived," Ms Marder said.

It was feared many inmates had fled the prison in Comayagua, about 100km (60 miles) north of the capital Tegucigalpa.

Amid the confusion, relatives gathered outside the prison to try to get information.

"I'm looking for my brother. We don't know what's happened to him and they won't let us in," Arlen Gomez told Honduran radio.

Local hospitals are treating dozens of people for burns and other injuries.

A burnt down yard in the National Prison compound in Comayagua Authorities have yet to establish a cause of the fire

Some of the injured have been taken to Tegucigalpa for treatment, among them 30 people with severe burns.

Firefighters said they had struggled to enter the prison because shots had been fired.

Honduran media reported that there had been a riot in the prison before the fire broke out.

Prison service head Daniel Orellana denied this.

"We have two hypotheses. One is that a prisoner set fire to a mattress and the other one is that there was a short-circuit in the electrical system," he was quoted as saying by Reuters.

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Prisons in Honduras, which has the world's highest murder rate, are often seriously overcrowded and hold many gang members.

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