Rising anger in Honduras over deadly prison fire

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Anger rose in Honduras on Thursday as word spread about how inmates were left trapped in a horrific prison fire, or were shot trying to flee the blaze which killed 355 prisoners.

Resentment over the conduct of prison guards deepened as experts sought to identify the charred remains of those killed at the overcrowded Comayagua prison, thought to be the world's worst-ever jail fire.

"If the guards had opened the gates, they would not have died, said Rosa Caseres, whose husband, serving five years for kidnapping, died in the inferno. This is criminal. The authorities are incompetent," said the mother of three young children.

Other relatives echoed her fury.

"How can you believe 350 people died just like that? It's because they let them die. They (guards) did not come with the keys," said Angelina Raudales, 62, as she waited outside the morgue in Tegucigalpa for the body of her husband, Jose Adrian.

Gladys Oviedo, 40, searching for the body of her brother Augusto, called for 'an investigation which is not a cover-up'.

'Guards shot at inmates who tried to flee

To make matters worse, reports were spreading that prison guards began shooting at inmates who managed to flee the flames.

"One of the prisoners who survived said my husband was out, but the guards shot him and then threw him into the flames," said Yadira Hernandez, whose husband was serving a murder sentence.

Police officials have denied negligence in the deaths, but some firefighters pointed out that prison guards were slow to open cell doors and gates when the fire broke out at the prison housing 852 inmates, twice its capacity.

Officials suspended

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.

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.

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 forensic dentists and coroners had arrived from Chile, the United States, Guatemala and El Salvador.

5,000 inmates extra

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 kilometers (56 miles) south of the prison, and another 238 followed in the morning. Two more prisoners died in hospital.

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