Gunfire, tear gas at Venezuelan prison
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- Heavy gunfire erupted on Thursday inside a Venezuelan prison where armed inmates have prevented security forces from retaking control for nearly three weeks.
The shooting at La Planta prison in Caracas lasted for more than two hours in the morning, and then continued in the afternoon. Tear gas floated over the penitentiary and smoke billowed from a fire inside the compound. Blasts were heard inside the prison, but it was unclear what caused them.
Top prisons official Iris Varela said the gunfire was due to clashes between inmates, but some prisoners accused National Guard troops of attacking them.
Authorities did not report any confirmed injuries.
Outside the prison, skirmishes broke out between distraught relatives of inmates and National Guard troops who used tear gas and a water cannon to drive them away. Dozens of soldiers in anti-riot gear stood guard.
One inmate inside the prison told The Associated Press that prisoners weren't firing at the time and accused the National Guard troops of starting the clashes by attacking. The inmate said his first name was Darwin but declined to give his last name, saying he could face retribution.
He said inmates had met with several officials on Wednesday to discuss a peaceful solution to the standoff, but that hours later officials cut off electricity and water service to the prison. He accused security forces of firing at inmates and said some suffered light wounds, though he didn't say how many were hurt.
Prison rights activist Carlos Nieto also said that according to accounts some prisoners provided to him, National Guard troops had been involved in the violence and "the attack is from the outside in."
Government officials did not respond to those claims.
Venezuela's government is trying to close La Planta prison following two escape attempts and complaints of overcrowding, saying the facility doesn't meet standards. About half of the prison's inmates have already been transferred to other lockups, but a group of armed inmates have effectively kept the authorities out of the prison since late last month.
"Inside there's a confrontation between inmates. We want to achieve a continuation of the process of dialogue in the prison," Varela told state television. "It's a situation we're going to resolve."
In a nearby square, Yenire Vasquez, the wife of one inmate, cried as she sat on the ground and said she hopes the prisoners aren't hurt. She said the government seems to want to force them out.
"They're human beings," Vasquez said. "They have families. They aren't a bunch of dogs."
Some relatives of inmates have said that a group of armed prisoners has been holding out to avoid being taken to other prisons that have severe crowding problems and are far away from the courts in Caracas that are handling their cases.
Vice President Elias Jaua appeared on television and urged the inmates to stop resisting and agree to be transferred to other prisons in order to close the Caracas lockup.
Tensions at the prison have risen since April 27, when Varela said the authorities foiled an escape attempt when they found a tunnel dug by inmates that led to a sewer. Three days later, gunfire erupted at the prison after what Varela described as another escape attempt.
In another incident on May 8, heavy gunfire rang out at the prison and one man in a nearby apartment was killed by a stray bullet.
Inside Venezuela's prisons, inmates often manage to obtain weapons, and violence is common. The watchdog group Venezuelan Prisons Observatory said about 560 people died in Venezuelan prisons last year, up from 476 in 2010.
Venezuela's prisons were built to hold about 12,000 inmates, but officials have said they hold about 47,000.