An injured prison inmate is escorted by a policeman into the hospital in Barquisimeto, Venezuela, Friday, Jan. 25, 2013. / Rafael Rodriguez/AP/El Informador
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) - Venezuelan authorities on Sunday finished evacuating inmates from a prison where 61 were reported killed in one of the deadliest prison clashes in the nation's history.
Penitentiary Service Minister Iris Varela said in a message on Twitter that the evacuation of Uribana prison in the city of Barquisimeto was completed on Sunday morning. Inmates were loaded aboard buses and driven to other prisons.
Varela posted photos of inmates filing out led by authorities, and said that what will come next for the prison is "now the reconstruction!"
Two days after the violence, government officials had yet to provide an official death toll from the fierce gunbattles, which pitted armed inmates against National Guard troops.
Dr. Ruy Medina, director of Central Hospital in the city, told The Associated Press on Saturday that the death toll had risen to 61, while about 120 were wounded in the violence.
Medina said that nearly all of the injuries were from gunshots and that 45 of the estimated 120 people who were wounded remained hospitalized.
Relatives wept outside the prison during the violence, and cried at the morgue 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 gunbattles 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.
The riot was the deadliest in nearly two decades. In January 1994, more than 100 inmates died in the country's bloodiest prison violence on record when a riot and fire set by inmates tore through a prison in the western city of Maracaibo. In 1992, about 60 inmates were killed in a riot in a Caracas prison.
Varela said that the violence erupted 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 reports of clashes between groups of inmates during the past two days.
"No one doubts that inspections are necessary procedures to guarantee prison conditions in line with international standards, but they can't be carried out with the warlike attitude as (authorities) have done it," said Humberto Prado, an activist who leads the Venezuelan Prisons Observatory, a watchdog group.
"It's clear that the inspection wasn't coordinated or put into practice as it should have been. It was evidently a disproportionate use of force," Prado said.
In 2011, when Chavez had been in office for 12 years, he created a Cabinet ministry to focus on prisons and appointed Varela to lead it. The president made that decision following a deadly, weekslong armed uprising at the prisons El Rodeo I and El Rodeo II outside Caracas.
Chavez at the time acknowledged that his government's previous initiatives to improve the prisons hadn't worked, and he pledged changes including building new prisons, improving conditions and speeding trials. Since then, Chavez has approved funds to repair and renovate prisons. But opponents and activists say the government hasn't made real progress at penitentiaries where hundreds continue to die each year.
Venezuela has 33 prisons built to hold about 12,000 inmates. Officials have said the prisons' population is currently about 47,000.
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