300 die in jail blaze as guards with cell keys vanish

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More than 300 prisoners have died after being trapped in their cells as fire swept through a jail in Honduras.

Inmates screamed through the bars for release, but firefighters said that guards with the keys had vanished. Altogether 356 people on the prison roster were yesterday unaccounted for among 852 prisoners.

“The majority could be dead, though others could have suffered burns, escaped or survived,” said a spokeswoman.

The fire broke out on Tuesday night at the prison in Comayagua, a town 90 miles from the capital, Tegucigalpa.

Local fire department head Josue Garcia said he saw “horrific” scenes while trying to put out the fire, saying inmates rioted trying to escape. He said “some 100 prisoners were burned to death or suffocated in their cells”. He added: “We couldn’t get them out because we didn’t have the keys and couldn’t find the guards who had them.”

Hundreds of relatives rushed to a local hospital to try to find out about their loved ones.

President Porfirio Lobo declared an emergency in July 2010 in nine of the 24 prisons in Honduras. His security minister at the time called the prisons “universities of crime” that had been overwhelmed by overcrowding.

Outraged relatives of dead inmates tried to storm the gates of the prison to recover the bodies but were driven back by police officers firing tear gas.

Dozens of the relatives hurled rocks at officers.

Hundreds of other relatives rushed to Santa Teresa Hospital in Comayagua state to learn the fate of their loved ones.

Police said it would take at least three months to identify victims, some burned beyond recognition, because DNA tests will be required.

Survivors said the fire started when an inmate set fire to his bedding, Mr Orellana said.

“Some of his cellmates said that he screamed: ‘We will all die here!’ And in five minutes everything burned,” he said.

Honduras’ overcrowded and dilapidated prisons have been hit by a string of deadly riots and fires in recent years. A 2004 fire killed more than 100 gang members in a state prison north of the capital. A fire a year earlier at a nearby facility killed 70 gang members.

In 1994, a fire sparked by an overheated fridge motor in an overcrowded Honduras prison killed 103 people.