Many dead in Honduran prison fire amid inmate riot

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At least 18 people have died during an uprising by armed inmates at a Honduran prison, one of them decapitated and the others killed by a fire started by the rioters, authorities said.

The unrest on Thursday came six weeks after a fire at another prison in Honduras killed 361 inmates. A fire official said the toll from the latest blaze could rise. Yair Mesa, police commissioner of the rough northern city of San Pedro Sula, said Thursday's riot had been brought under control.

"The uprising has been put down without the need to fire shots," Mesa said by telephone from inside the prison. But National fire chief Alfonso Medina said one part of the prison was still under control of inmates who be armed with grenades.

San Pedro Sula Bishop Romulo Emiliani arrived outside the prison, saying he had been asked to serve as a negotiator with the inmates. Emiliani reflected the prevailing view that such tragedies are bound to recur in Honduras' overcrowded prison system.

"Everybody has known for some time that the authorities have no interest in the prisons. They are a time bomb that will continue to explode," the bishop said.

In 2008, the latest year for which figures are available, Honduras' prison system had nearly 38 per cent more prisoners than it was built to house, according to the London-based International Centre for Prison Studies.

Mesa said most of the victims apparently died of burns or asphyxiation, but said the cause of death could not immediately be determined because the bodies were so badly burned.

One prisoner's head was cut off and tossed outside the prison during the riot. Inmates carried the burned bodies from the site of the blaze and set them out in the prison yard. Medina said the death toll was not final because security officers had not been able to check all of the prison.

City fire chief Jose Danilo Flores said the prisoners themselves appeared to have fought the fire inside the facility. He said the armed inmates initially kept firefighters from entering.

San Pedro Sula is believed to be one of the most dangerous cities in a country that has the highest homicide rate in the world. A fire at the San Pedro Sula prison in 2004 killed 107 inmates.

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