Hostages freed after deadly jail siege ends

POLICE RETOOK control of a maximum-security Argentinian prison last night, winning the release of some two dozen guards held hostage for more than 24 hours after rioting by hundreds of inmates left eight people dead.

A police chief, Jorge Rodriguez, said that the situation at the San Martin penitentiary in Cordoba, a provincial city 450 miles (700 km) northwest of Buenos Aires was stable, although authorities were still sweeping the last corners of the prison and inspecting surrendering inmates.

Mr Rodriguez said that convicts serving the longest sentences were among the last to surrender. It was unclear whether authorities made any concessions to end one of Argentina's worst prison riots in years.

Some 25 guards and the prison warden were reported among those taken hostage on Thursday. There was no immediate word on their condition.

Shirtless inmates had climbed the roof of the prison and held a black- uniformed guard by the neck, threatening to throw him to the ground.

Live television footage showed rampaging inmates wielding knives and clubs while gripping another dazed man in a blood-soaked T-shirt. Shots rang out as the rioters threw rocks down at police who were crouching beneath plastic riot shields.

One of the first guards released yesterday said, however, that he was well despite the "hellish" ordeal. "They didn't hit me or hurt me in any way," said the unidentified man as he left. "Now I just want to go home and get some rest."

In the violent opening hours Thursday afternoon, five inmates, two prison guards and a police officer were killed, officials said. The Cordoba Governor, Jose Manuel De la Sota, yesterday declared two days of official mourning in the state for the dead officials.

Several women and children were visiting relatives when the violence broke out and were caught inside. But a government official, Gustavo Vidal Lascano, said they were among the first to be evacuated safely yesterday.

The prison houses about 1,500 prisoners, officials said, although local media reports said it was designed to hold about 900. The complex, a set of drab cement buildings, was surrounded by hundreds of police for hours and neighbourhood residents were told to stay indoors.

Reports said that the violence had erupted over inmate demands for better visitation rights and living conditions.

Prison violence in Latin America remains a concern of human rights organisations.

Virginia Shoppee, a researcher for Amnesty International, which has issued reports on Latin American prisons, said that many prison buildings in Argentina were old and cause for concern, although she did not have specific information on the state of the San Martin penitentiary.

"The situation in most prisons in Argentina is that they are overcrowded without the proper facilities," Ms Shoppee said from Amnesty's London headquarters.

The problem is seen across the continent. In Peru five inmates were killed and 18 injured on Tuesday, in a clash between rival gangs at the Lurigancho men's prison, where more than 7,000 are being held in a complex designed to hold 1,800. Last September in Venezuala, inmates armed with hand grenades and guns rioted at an overcrowded prison, killing at least six of their number. (AP)

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