Troops battle inmates at Venezuelan prison

Gunfire rang out at a Venezuelan prison for a second day on Saturday as thousands of troops sought to regain control in battles that have left at least three dead and 18 wounded.

National Guard General Luis Motta Dominguez said one inmate had died in addition to two National Guard troops whose deaths were confirmed earlier. At least 18 troops were reported wounded in Friday's clashes at the prison in Guatire, east of Caracas.

The violence erupted in the El Rodeo I prison as troops were searching it for weapons. A riot in the prison on June 12 left 22 dead.

About 50 inmates continued to resist the troops, Justice Minister Tareck El Aissami told state television. He said they "refuse to change their hostile attitude, refuse dialogue."

"Everything that we're doing is to protect the inmates' lives," El Aissami said.

Inmates' relatives protested outside the prison, some of them weeping as troops stood guard in anti-riot gear. Soldiers used tear gas at one point Saturday to drive back the distraught relatives.

A 5,000-strong security force, including 3,500 National Guard troops, was joined on Saturday by 400 soldiers from an elite army paratroop unit, officials said.

They were occupying both El Rodeo I and the adjacent El Rodeo II prison.

During Friday's search, soldiers seized seven rifles, five shotguns, 20 handguns and eight hand grenades, along with about 100 pounds (45 kilograms) of cocaine, 5,000 rifle cartridges and 100 cellular phones, Motta Dominguez said.

Venezuela's severely crowded prisons have suffered repeated violent outbursts as rival gangs often fight for control of cellblocks and sell weapons and drugs with the help of corrupt prison guards.

The country's 30 prisons were built to hold about 12,500 prisoners but instead hold about 49,000, according to the Venezuelan Prisons Observatory, a group that monitors prison conditions.

Last year, 476 peopled died and 967 people were injured in the country's prison system, according to figures compiled by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Human Rights Watch also said in a recent report that about three out of four inmates in Venezuela's prison system have yet to be sentenced due to backlogs in the country's slow-moving justice system.

President Hugo Chavez has pledged to improve conditions in the prisons, but the violence has worsened recently. After the deadly riot last week, the government announced that a new government ministry would be created to focus on prison issues.

-AP

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