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Honduras investigates deadly jail blaze
Top prison officials suspended and inquiry launched after fire kills more than 350 inmates at overcrowded facility.
Last Modified: 16 Feb 2012 15:22

The Honduran government has launched an investigation and suspended prison officials after a fire killed more than 350 inmates in an overcrowded jail.

Medics and international experts worked on Thursday to identify the charred remains of the prison inmates in the central city of Comayagua, located about 90km north of the capital, Tegucigalpa.

Prison officials and rescue workers dressed in white hazard suits moved in to remove the remains, as relatives wept, clinging to each other as they mourned the deaths of their loved ones in Tuesday's fire.

Porfirio Lobo, the country's president, has responded by initiating action against the prison authorities.

Those suspended while the investigation is under way include Honduras' corrections chief and officials at the Comayagua facility.

"We will be carrying out a full investigation to determine what caused this sad and unacceptable tragedy, and to determine who shoulders the blame," Lobo said on Wednesday.

Bodies transported

The first 115 bodies were transported to a mortuary in Tegucigalpa overnight, Pompeyo Bonilla, the Honduran security minister, told the AFP news agency on Thursday.

"More than 350 dead, it is an approximation. We cannot rule out that it could be a bit higher, but we are checking so we can give an official and precise toll for this tragedy," he said.

Al Jazeera's Andy Gallacher, reporting from Comayagua, said that there were several theories regarding how the fire started.

 

"Some say that a prisoner started it and other that it was started externally, but I can tell you that there are scenes of chaos here," he said.

"Forensic experts here say that it will be two or three days before they can start identifying the bodies that are badly burned."

Survivors described wrenching scenes of prisoners pleading for help, many unable to flee locked cells engulfed in smoke and flames, with some diving into showers and sinks and others jumping from the prison rooftop.

Most of the prison fire deaths were caused by smoke inhalation.

There were reports that some inmates had fled the jail and were on the loose.

The Comayagua jail is just 500 metres from a highway that links San Pedro Sula, the economic centre of Honduras, with Tegucigalpa.

'Suicide attempt'

The fire broke out at around 10:50pm local time on Tuesday (04:50 GMT on Wednesday), and burned for around three hours before it was brought under control.

Paola Castro, the state governor, has said that her office had received a phone call from someone claiming to be an inmate, telling her that another prisoner had set the fire in a suicide attempt.

Hector Ivan Mejia, a police spokesman, insisted firefighters arrived on the scene within 15 minutes of the blaze.

The prison in Comayagua was holding more than double the number of prisoners it was officially built for.

Honduras - like much of Central America - has been gripped by drug violence in recent years, and prisons in the country are notoriously overcrowded.

The 24 penal facilities in Honduras officially have room for 8,000 inmates, but actually house 13,000.

The Organisation of American States in Washington said it was launching its own inquiry into the disaster, while Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign affairs chief, expressed her "great sorrow" over the disaster.

Source:
Al Jazeera and agencies
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