Members of the National Guard take shelter during a riot outside Uribana Prison in Barquisimeto, Venezuela, on Friday.
(Photo: Dedwinson Alvarez, AFP/Getty Images)
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) - Venezuelan media reported that dozens were killed in a bloody prison riot, and the government said it was investigating.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro called the violence tragic early Saturday on television and said the authorities had launched an investigation.
He and other officials did not give a death toll from the riot Friday at Uribana prison in the central city of Barquisimeto.
The newspaper Ultimas Noticias reported on its website that 54 were killed. The television channel Globovision reported at least 50 killed and about 90 injured. Both cited Ruy Medina, the director of Central Hospital in the city.
Penitentiary Service Minister Iris Varela said earlier on television that the riot broke out when groups of inmates attacked National Guard troops who were attempting to carry out an inspection.
Varela said the violence had affected a number of prisoners and officials, but said the authorities would hold off until control had been re-established at the prison to confirm the toll. She said the government decided to send troops to search the prison after receiving reports of clashes between groups of inmates during the past two days.
The death toll provided by Medina rose late Friday after he had initially reported four killed and dozens injured.
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles condemned the government's handling of the country's overcrowded and violent prisons.
"Our country's prisons are an example of the incapacity of this government and its leaders. They never solved the problem," Capriles said on his Twitter account. "How many more deaths do there have to be in the prisons for the government to acknowledge its failure and make changes?"
It was the latest in a series of bloody riots in the country's prisons. In August, 25 people were killed and 43 sounded when two groups of inmates fought a gunbattle inside Yare I prison south of Caracas.
In recent years, violence has worsened inside Venezuela's severely overcrowded prisons, where inmates often obtain weapons and drugs with the help of corrupt guards.
Venezuela currently has 33 prisons built to hold about 12,000 inmates, but officials have said the prisons' population is about 47,000.
Uribana prison was built to hold up to 850 inmates but currently has about 1,400, according to the Venezuelan Prisons Observatory, a watchdog group.
Maduro also addressed Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's condition, saying that the ailing president is now "in the best moment we've seen him in these days of struggle" following his Dec. 11 cancer surgery. Chavez hasn't been seen or spoken publicly since before the operation, and his government has said he suffered complications including a severe respiratory infection but has recently been getting better.
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