Caracas: The death toll has risen to 61 following fierce gun battles between inmates and National Guard troops at a Venezuelan prison, a hospital director has said.
About 120 more people were wounded in one of the deadliest prison riots in the nation's history.
Penitentiary Service Minister Iris Varela said yesterday 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, 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 hospitalised. 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.
The riot was the latest in a series of deadly clashes in Venezuela's overcrowded and often anarchical prisons, where inmates typically obtain weapons and drugs with the help of corrupt guards. Critics called it proof that the government is failing to get a grip on a worsening national crisis in its penitentiaries.
The gun battles seized attention amid uncertainty about President Hugo Chavez's future, while he remained in Cuba recovering and undergoing treatment more than six weeks after his latest cancer surgery.
Government officials pledged a thorough investigation, while some critics said there should have been ways for the authorities to prevent such bloodshed.
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."