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Originally published Sunday, January 27, 2013 at 6:34 AM

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Inmates moved after bloody Venezuela prison clash

Venezuelan authorities finished evacuating more than 2,000 inmates on Sunday from a prison where the government said 58 people were killed in one of the deadliest prison clashes in the nation's history.

Associated Press

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CARACAS, Venezuela —

Venezuelan authorities finished evacuating more than 2,000 inmates on Sunday from a prison where the government said 58 people were killed in one of the deadliest prison clashes in the nation's history.

More than two days after the bloodshed, Penitentiary Service Minister Iris Varela released an official death toll and said 46 wounded victims remained hospitalized.

She said 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.

She and other officials appeared on television inside the empty prison compound, among wandering dogs and sheep that the inmates had kept. They pointed out makeshift shacks constructed with wood scraps and sheets of zinc where some inmates had taken shelter in the overcrowded prison.

Varela said that the violence erupted on Friday when groups of armed inmates began firing shots at National Guard troops who were attempting to carry out an inspection.

"There was resistance to what was imminent ... a peaceful inspection," Varela said, adding that groups of prisoners had opened fire "on a large scale."

Those killed included inmates as well as two Protestant pastors and one soldier, she said. One victim's body was burned, Varela said.

The death toll provided by the government differed from that given a day earlier by Dr. Ruy Medina, director of Central Hospital in the city, who had said 61 were reported killed and about 120 were wounded. Medina said that nearly all of the injuries were from gunshots.

Relatives of the victims mourned in funerals, while survivors' families waited anxiously to hear where inmates were taken.

"I still don't know where my son is," said Nayibe Mendez, the mother of a 22-year-old inmate who was unhurt. She spoke by telephone from outside the prison, where she and others gathered waiting for lists showing where their relatives were transported.

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 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 the government decided to send troops to search the prison after reports of clashes between groups of inmates during the past two days. She said the government is battling against "mafias" that slip weapons into prisons, and that the authorities next plan to thoroughly search Uribana prison for hidden weapons.

She said that during one initial swing through the prison, officials came upon a grenade.

"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."

In 2011, when Chavez had been in office for 12 years, he created a cabinet-level 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.

Violence has flared repeatedly at other prisons in the past year. In August, 25 people were killed and 43 wounded when two groups of inmates fought a gunbattle inside Yare I prison south of Caracas.

Venezuela has 33 prisons built to hold about 12,000 inmates. Officials have said the prisons' population is currently about 47,000.

Uribana prison was built to hold about 850 inmates. Varela said that when the violence erupted the prison held about 2,400.

Opposition leader Henrique Capriles called government officials' response "incredible" and inadequate. Without mentioning Vice President Nicolas Maduro by name, Capriles criticized government officials who ordered an investigation and then traveled off to a summit in Chile.

He noted that in Brazil, President Dilma Rousseff reacted differently after a nightclub fire that killed more than 230 people, when she cut short her summit trip and returning to visit the injured.

"Here, they go away to a summit. They dispose of it as if it were one more matter, one more little problem," Capriles said at a televised event. "If we have a state that's not capable of providing security within a penitentiary, what's left for common citizens?"

"The problem that we're seeing can't be solved closing a prison," Capriles said. "The way to solve it is resolving the problem of overcrowding."

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Associated Press writer Vivian Sequera in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.

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