Honduras prison blaze: 350 confirmed dead and 100 still missing

Angry relatives clash with police as officials study whether fire was caused by electrical fault or arson

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Fire swept through an overcrowded jail in Honduras, killing at least 350 inmates and leaving officials struggling to quell growing public outrage at the treatment of victims and their families.

Police said 100 of the 853 inhabitants of Comayagua prison, 75 miles north of the capital, Tegucigalpa, were still unaccounted for and 357 had been confirmed dead after the blaze, which began late on Tuesday night and lasted for about an hour.

Many victims were trapped in their cells and either burned or suffocated. "We heard screaming from the people who caught fire," said one survivor. "We had to push up roof panels to get out."

Relatives of inmates besieged the scene yesterday morning. But with most corpses burned beyond recognition and hospitals overflowing with survivors, they struggled to get information about the whereabouts of loved ones.

Hector Meija, a police chief, read out the names of 457 survivors, but that was not enough to prevent frustrations from overflowing. At one point, the crowd outside the perimeter fence threw rocks at riot police. Officers fired shots into the air and released tear gas.

The cause of the fire remains unconfirmed, though investigators said they believed it resulted either from an electrical fault, or arson. "We have two hypotheses," said Daniel Orellana, the head of the prison system. "One is that a prisoner set fire to a mattress and the other one is that there was a short circuit in the electrical system."

Mr Orellana denied reports that the fire broke out during a riot. However, some news outlets claimed emergency crews attempting to tackle the blaze were initially forced to withdraw after shots were fired at them.

Porfirio Lobo, the President of Honduras, promised a "full and transparent" investigation into what he called a "lamentable and unacceptable" tragedy. Local and national prison authorities are to be suspended until it is concluded.

The inquiry may throw an unsavoury spotlight on conditions in the jails of Honduras, which is suffering a crime wave fuelled by the drugs trade. It has the highest murder rate in the western hemisphere and its jails are at twice their capacity. In May 2004, more than 100 inmates were killed in a fire at a jail in Honduras's second city, San Pedro Sula. The guards reportedly fired on victims trying to escape the flames.