Grim Identification after Honduras Prison Fire

16 Feb 2012

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Honduran congress personnel donate coffins for the victims of the blaze at a prison, in Comayagua

Forensic experts Thursday sought to identify the charred remains of 355 inmates killed when fire engulfed an overcrowded Honduras prison, thought to be the world's worst ever jail blaze, reports AFP.

The devastating fire has led President Porfirio Lobo to suspend Honduras's top prison officials, including the corrections chief, as well as those at the Comayagua penitentiary, which held almost double its official inmate capacity.

The inferno broke out at around 10:50 pm Tuesday (0450 GMT Wednesday), and burned for around three hours before it was brought under control and the cause remains unclear.

Authorities put the final toll at 355 -- more than a third of the facility's inmates. Security minister Pompeyo Bonilla told AFP the process of identifying the victims would be prolonged.

"But fortunately we have the support of friendly countries," he said, noting that dentists and coroners had arrived from Chile, the United States, Guatemala and El Salvador.

Prisons in Honduras -- and throughout Latin America -- are notoriously overcrowded. The country's 24 penal facilities officially have room for 8,000 inmates, but actually house 13,000.

The first 115 bodies were transported overnight to the mortuary in the capital Tegucigalpa, 90 kilometres (56 miles) south of the prison, and another 238 followed in the morning. Two more prisoners died in hospital.

"That is the total brought from the facility, and there were no more," Melvin Duarte, a spokesman for the public prosecutor's office, said in giving the definitive toll.

Relatives have been mourning those killed. Soldiers and police on Wednesday had the grim task of removing the corpses, which were lined up in black bodybags pending forensic examination.

Officials were unclear about the cause, at first believing that the blaze was sparked by a short circuit.

But state governor Paola Castro later told AFP 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.

Police spokesman, Hector Ivan Mejia said firefighters arrived on the scene within 15 minutes of the blaze.

But many distraught relatives blamed prison authorities for moving too slowly to save them and some accused the guards of refusing to let inmates out despite the deadly inferno.

"My son died of asphyxiation there," Leonidas Medina, 69, said at a local hospital. "The guards wouldn't open the door and (the inmates) burned to death. They wouldn't have died if they had just opened the doors."

Desperate relatives, frustrated at being left in the dark about the fate of their loved ones, clashed with police and then stormed the prison gates early Wednesday.

Security forces fired into the air in a bid to stop the unrest, but the relatives burst through a locked gate and flooded into the facility, where they gathered in a front courtyard.

Officials here expressed sympathy with the relatives' frustration, but called for patience.

Tags: News, World, Comayagua

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