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article imageVenezuela rivals trade blame after jail shootout kills 37

By Esteban ROJAS (AFP)     Aug 17, 2017 in World

Venezuelan political rivals traded blame on Thursday for a gun and grenade battle in which 37 people were killed when security forces stormed a jailhouse.

The governor of Amazonas province, Liborio Guarulla, accused state forces of committing a "massacre" when they raided the jail to search for weapons.

But President Nicolas Maduro's government held Guarulla, an opponent of the ruling Socialist party, responsible for the violence, alleging that heavily-armed prisoners had fired at the forces when they entered.

Desperate relatives meanwhile rallied at a hospital in the town, yelling for officials to release the bodies of their loved ones.

"They are starting to smell. Please, have pity and hand over the bodies of our dead," said one woman, Laure Fernandez, in a video filmed at the scene.

- Governor alleges 'massacre' -

The bloodshed erupted overnight Tuesday to Wednesday in a court holding facility in the remote town of Puerto Ayacucho, near the Colombian and Brazilian borders.

The prosecutors' office said an investigation had been launched into "the deaths of 37 people."

Two prison monitoring groups, A Window to Freedom and the Venezuelan Prisons Observatory, said the 37 killed were all inmates.

"This is the worst riot we've had in a preventative detention facility," Carlos Nieto of A Window to Freedom told AFP.

"In this one, detainees are only supposed to be held for up to 48 hours, but there were prisoners who have been there for years," he said.

The jail was holding more than 100 prisoners at the time of the riot, Guarulla said.

- 'Take responsibility' -

Jackson Sanz, the father of one of those killed, called on Maduro -- who is resisting opposition calls to quit amid a deadly political crisis -- to "take responsibility for this massacre."

Guarulla said the raid had been ordered because it was suspected prisoners may be armed.

He said special forces entered the jail with excessive force, throwing grenades and using high-powered firearms.

Map showing Puerto Ayucucho in Venezuela where 37 inmates have been killed in a prison riot
Map showing Puerto Ayucucho in Venezuela where 37 inmates have been killed in a prison riot
Laurence CHU, AFP

"The result was a real massacre," he said.

But Maduro's Interior Minister Nestor Reverol held Guarulla responsible for the prison violence.

"It is a police facility under the custody and administration of the Amazonas governorship," Reverol said.

He called for Guarulla to be investigated for failing to secure the facility.

Reverol said the forces were met by prisoners using "long firearms and grenades."

He alleged that a prison gang leader had committed some of the killings, while some were carried out by security forces acting appropriately.

- Rash of riots -

A severe economic crisis has left Venezuelan hospitals and other public services short of resources, and has fueled violent crime.

Prisons are reportedly lacking food and medicine for illnesses such as tuberculosis.

A series of gruesome riots have erupted in overcrowded jails across Latin America in recent years.

Scores of prisoners died in gang battles in Brazilian jails last year, some of them beheaded and set on fire by rival inmates.

The deadliest prison riot in Venezuela was in 2013, when 60 people died and more than 150 were wounded in a facility in Uribana, in the western state of Lara.

At the end of last year, the country had 88,000 detainees, more than double the official holding capacity of 35,000 places, according to A Window to Freedom.

Some 33,000 convicted prisoners were being kept in preventative centers like the one in Puerto Ayacucho, alongside people awaiting trial, Nieto said.

"They planned to build a new prison in every state," said Nieto. "But in Amazonas, they have not even laid the first stone."

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