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Honduras Officials Say Prison Fire Kills at Least 358 Inmates

Forensic workers load into a truck bodies of inmates killed during a fire inside the prison in Comayagua, Honduras, Feb. 15, 2012.

Officials in Honduras say the massive fire that killed at least 358 inmates at an overcrowded prison was started by an inmate.

The blaze, one of the world's deadliest prison fires in history, took place at the farm prison in the town of Comayugua, located north of the capital of Tegucigalpa. Many of the victims suffocated in their cells or burned to death.

Comayugua Governor Paola Castro says she received a phone call from an inmate late Tuesday night, telling her that another inmate had set fire to a mattress.

Many survivors managed to escape by breaking through the prison's sheet metal roofing. Prison guards fired their guns in the air as the prisoners escaped the blaze, believing they had a riot on their hands.

"They [the guards] were outside and instead of letting them [the inmates] out, they wanted to stop them and kept them inside," said Heriberto Rivas, Comayagua prison inmate who survived the fire. I don't know what their reasons were but thank God I am alive and I'll carry on."

Honduran President Porfirio Lobo announced during a nationally televised address Wednesday that he has suspended the director of the national prison system, as well as the director of the Comayugua facility.

The Comayagua prison housed some 850 prisoners, about double its capacity.
Distraught relatives surrounded the prison hours after the tragedy, desperate to learn the fate of their loved ones. Some threw rocks at police and tried to force their way into the facility. Police fired tear gas in an effort to hold back the crowd.

"They [the guards] are a disgrace because they could have opened the doors and they didn't," said Maria Ramirez, wife of Comayagua prison inmate who died in fire. "Instead of opening the doors they started shooting at them in the middle of the night. They only thought of them running away and not of them getting burned alive," she said.

The Organization of American States is sending a delegation to investigate. OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza expressed "deep consternation regarding the tragic events" and expressed solidarity with the government.

Honduran prisons are notoriously overcrowded and are often the scene of riots and clashes between rival gang members. The U.S. State Department has criticized Honduras for "harsh prison conditions." The Central American nation's last major prison fire struck the town of San Pedro Sula in 2004, killing more than 100 prisoners.