|The authorities also fired teargas to disperse relatives of the prisoners who protested outside El Rodeo prison [AFP]|
Thousands of troops have stormed a Venezuelan jail to regain control of the complex after gunbattles between inmates killed at least 22 people in the latest riots to rock the overcrowded prison system.
Officials said one soldier was killed and about 20 other National Guard troops wounded in shootouts with the detainees in El Rodeo prison, which is in the town of Guarenas, east of the capital, Caracas.
“We must exercise our authority to protect the lives of the prisoners,” said the Venezuelan vice president Elias Jaua.
“President Hugo Chavez’s instructions were not to cause any victims, but this decision has been costly for the National Guard.”
The government did not say how many prisoners died in Friday’s violence, but the independent Ultimas Noticias newspaper said on its website that 11 inmates were killed and 26 wounded, citing contacts with detainees in El Rodeo.
On Friday, relatives of the prisoners pelted National Guard vehicles with rocks as they sped toward the jail. Some smeared their faces with toothpaste to ward off the effect of the gas.
The authorities also fired teargas to disperse relatives of the prisoners who demonstrated and lit barricades in the streets outside El Rodeo prison, screaming as the sound of gunfire came over the walls.
Activists say prisoners at El Rodeo fought and shot at each other for about nine hours last Sunday, without intervention from guards, while panicked families gathered outside.
The vice minister of citizens’ security, Nestor Reverol, said the authorities were now in control of some 3,500 inmates, or about three-quarters of the population of the jail, originally built to hold 750 people.
“The gunshot wounds suffered by the troops who were evacuated were caused by high-power rifles being used by the prisoners,” Reverol told state media. “We have more than 3,500 troops who are putting their lives at risk.”
Prison massacres are nothing new for Venezuela and stretch back long before Chavez took office in 1999.
In perhaps the worst single incident, about 130 prisoners were burned or hacked to death with machetes during gang fights in 1994 at Sabaneta jail in the western city of Maracaibo.
Last year, 476 inmates were killed in Venezuelan jails, according to a nongovernmental organization that tracks prison violence, while 124 died in the first quarter of this year alone.