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La Planta Prison: Gunfire Erupts At Venezuelan Jail

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A National Guard soldier aims a weapon at relatives of inmates protesting against measures taken by authorities to control a riot at the La Planta prison, during clashes outside the prison in Caracas, Venezuela, Tuesday, May 8, 2012. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
A National Guard soldier aims a weapon at relatives of inmates protesting against measures taken by authorities to control a riot at the La Planta prison, during clashes outside the prison in Caracas, Venezuela, Tuesday, May 8, 2012. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

CARACAS, Venezuela -- Gunfire erupted on Thursday inside a Venezuelan prison where armed inmates have prevented security forces from retaking control for nearly three weeks.

Top prisons official Iris Varela said the heavy gunfire was due to clashes between inmates. Clouds of tear gas floated over the prison, and smoke billowed from a fire inside the compound.

The shooting at La Planta prison in Caracas lasted for more than two hours. There were no immediate reports of injuries.

Rights activist Carlos Nieto said that despite the authorities' account, prisoners reported that National Guard troops were involved. Police and troops gathered outside the prison and blocked roads in the area.

"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."

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.

Gunfire also erupted at the prison on May 8, and one man in a nearby apartment was killed by a stray bullet.

On April 27, Varela said the authorities foiled an escape attempt when they found a tunnel dug by inmates that led to a sewer. On April 30, gunfire erupted at the prison after what Varela described as another escape attempt.

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.

Venezuela's prisons were built to hold about 12,000 inmates, but officials have said they hold about 47,000.

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