At least 55 people were killed and 90 others wounded in clashes between prison gangs and security guards at a facility in northwest Venezuela, a hospital director said Saturday.
Television images had earlier shown National Guard troops surrounding the Uribana prison in Lara state as inmates in bloody clothes were taken out of the building.
Behind the barriers, relatives of the prisoners — most of them women — waited for news of their loved ones, many of them in tears.
“There are 55 dead already in the morgue,” hospital director Ruy Medina said Saturday.
Around 30 people were still being treated, he said, adding that the patients are “progressing satisfactorily,” and that more would likely be released during the day.
Medina had earlier said that most of those injured had suffered gunshot wounds, and that 14 people had injuries severe enough to require surgery.
He had called the initial death toll of 50 “alarming,” saying it was based solely on bodies brought to the hospital.
Prison authorities have not yet released an official figure for the toll of those killed and wounded in the riot, but a press conference is expected later Saturday from Iris Varela, the minister responsible for Venezuela’s prisons.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro, freshly back in the country after visiting recovering President Hugo Chavez in Cuba, called the riot “regrettable” and “tragic,” and said an investigation had been launched.
Varela said the riot was sparked after inmates rebelled when prison authorities launched a sweep of the facility in search of illicit weapons.
Authorities had swept to “completely disarm” the prisoners after receiving a tip-off that prison gangs were readying to fight, she said.
Opposition parties immediately attacked the government, accusing it of exercising lax control over the prison system.
“Who will they blame for this massacre this time around?” opposition leader and former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles said on Twitter, calling the government “incapable and irresponsible.”
Humberto Prado, head of the non-governmental Venezuelan Prison Monitoring Organization, said the government “had failed to take responsibility for the events” and instead was “piling blame on the media.”
The situation in Uribana prison has been monitored by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights since 2006, he added.
“The court told the Venezuelan government that no more inmates should be dying in this jail, but the government did not comply with this request, and now we have such a serious outburst of violence,” he said.
Venezuela is notorious for the poor state of its prisons, which suffer from some of the highest levels of overcrowding in Latin America.
Originally built to house 14,000 inmates, the country’s prisons now hold almost 50,000 people, often with low sanitary standards and high levels of violence.
In August 2012, at least 25 people were killed and 43 wounded during a clash between rival gangs in Yare I prison near Caracas. In June 2011, dozens died in a riot that erupted at El Rodeo prison.