CARACAS, Venezuela — The death toll has risen to 61 following fierce gunbattles between inmates and National Guard troops at a Venezuelan prison, a hospital director said Saturday. About 120 more people were wounded in one of the deadliest prison riots in the nation's recent history.
Penitentiary Service Minister Iris Varela said Saturday that officials had begun evacuating inmates from the Uribana prison in Barquisimeto and transferring them to other facilities, but she did not provide an official death toll.
However, Dr. Ruy Medina, director of Central Hospital in the city of Barquisimeto, told The Associated Press that the number of dead had risen to 61. He initially told Venezuelan news media after the Friday uprising that about 50 were killed.
Medina said that nearly all of the injuries were from gunshots and that 45 of the estimated 120 people who were wounded remained hospitalized. Some underwent surgeries for their wounds.
Relatives wept outside the prison during the violence, and cried at the morgue Saturday as they waited to identify bodies.
Nayibe Mendez, the mother of a 22-year-old inmate in the prison, told the AP that she was able to talk by phone with her son and he was uninjured.
"What they say is that there were shots all over the place, and they don't know where they came from," Mendez said. "It was a massacre. A full list hasn't come out of the dead and injured."
Mendez spoke by telephone from the morgue, where she said she went out of solidarity. "We're all hurt. No matter what, a prisoner has a right to live," she said, demanding that the authorities fully investigate what happened.
Varela said during a news conference that officials decided to evacuate all inmates from the prison in order to "close this chapter of violence." She did not provide any estimates of the numbers killed and injured, and instead criticized Venezuelan news media at length for their coverage of the violence.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro called the bloodshed tragic and said Prosecutor General Luisa Ortega Diaz and National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello would lead the investigation.
"The prisons have to be governed by law," Maduro said on television early Saturday.
The riot was the deadliest in nearly two decades. In 1994, more than 100 inmates died in the country's bloodiest prison on record, at a prison in the western city of Maracaibo. In 1994, about 60 inmates were killed in a riot in a Caracas prison.
Varela said that the violence erupted at Uribana prison on Friday when groups of inmates attacked National Guard troops who were attempting to carry out an inspection.
She said the government decided to send troops to search the prison after receiving reports of clashes between groups of inmates during the past two days.
Douglas Briceno said his nephew, who is held at the prison, was wounded in the foot during the shooting. "I think he's out of danger," Briceno told the AP. "I haven't been able to communicate with him because they don't let me pass to the prison."
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles condemned the government's handling of what he and many other critics call a growing crisis in the country's prisons.
"Our country's prisons are an example of the incapacity of this government and its leaders. They never solved the problem," Capriles said on his Twitter account. "How many more deaths do there have to be in the prisons for the government to acknowledge its failure and make changes?"
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