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Honduras Prison Fire Breaks Out During Inmate Riot

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Inmates remain on the roof of a prison as others try to put out a fire at the facility in San Pedro Sula, in the north of Honduras, on March 29, 2012. (Carlos PEREZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Inmates remain on the roof of a prison as others try to put out a fire at the facility in San Pedro Sula, in the north of Honduras, on March 29, 2012. (Carlos PEREZ/AFP/Getty Images)

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — At least 13 people died during an uprising by armed inmates at a Honduran prison Thursday, one of them decapitated and the others killed by a fire started by the rioters, authorities said.

Varying reports of local and national authorities said as many as 18 inmates were killed, but national police chief Jose Ramirez said only 13 bodies had been sent to the morgue by late afternoon.

The unrest came six weeks after a fire at another prison in Honduras killed 361 inmates.

Yair Mesa, police commissioner of the rough northern city of San Pedro Sula, said Thursday's riot had been brought under control.

"The uprising has been put down without the need to fire shots," Mesa said by telephone from inside the prison.

San Pedro Sula Bishop Romulo Emiliani arrived outside the prison, saying he had been asked to serve as a negotiator with the inmates.

Emiliani reflected the prevailing view that such tragedies are bound to recur in Honduras' overcrowded prison system.

"Everybody has known for some time that the authorities have no interest in the prisons. They are a time bomb that will continue to explode," the bishop said.

Honduras Attorney General Ethel Deras appeared before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on Monday and said the San Pedro Sula prison was housing more than 2,200 inmates even though it had only 800 beds. Nationwide, 24 prisons built for a total capacity of 8,000 inmates are housing about 12,500, he said.

Thursday's uprising came a month and a half after Honduras' overcrowded prisons were hit by the worst prison fire in a century – a Feb. 14 conflagration at the Comayagua farm prison that killed 361 inmates.

U.S. investigators said the fire that burned and suffocated men trapped behind locked doors in the prison barracks was accidental, possibly caused by a match, cigarette or some other open flame.

President Porfirio Lobo called it a "day of profound sadness" and suspended the national prison system director, Danilo Orellana. Families have staged protests to complain that authorities have been slow to return victims' bodies.

At the time of the deadly blaze in Comayagua, relatives of inmates at the San Pedro Sula prison warned that it had far worse overcrowding and security conditions.

Mesa said most of the victims in Thursday's riot apparently died of burns or asphyxiation, but said the cause of death could not immediately be determined because the bodies were so badly burned.

One prisoner's head was cut off and tossed outside the prison during the riot. It was not immediately clear if his body was among those sent to the morgue.

Inmates carried the burned bodies from the site of the blaze and set them out in the prison yard.

City fire chief Jose Danilo Flores said the prisoners themselves appeared to have fought the fire inside the facility. He said the armed inmates initially kept firefighters from entering.

San Pedro Sula is believed to be one of the most dangerous cities in a country that has the highest homicide rate in the world. A fire at the San Pedro Sula prison in 2004 killed 107 inmates.

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