COMAYAGUA, Honduras, Feb. 16 (UPI) -- Honduran President Porfirio Lobo Sosa suspended two top prison officials after a fire at an overcrowded prison killed more than 350 people, officials said.
Removing the director of Comayagua National Penitentiary and the head of Honduras' national prison system will ensure a thorough, "full and transparent" investigation, Lobo Sosa said, promising to "take urgent measures to deal with this tragedy, which has plunged all Hondurans into mourning."
Supreme Court Justice Richard Ordonez, the lead investigator, said late Wednesday officials confirmed 358 people died in the fire, which ripped through the penitentiary Tuesday night in the town of Comayagua, about 50 miles north of the country's capital, Tegucigalpa.
It was one of the largest mass deaths of prisoners anywhere in the world in decades.
The prison housed 852 inmates, more than three times its 250 capacity, said Commissioner Ramon Custodio of the Honduran government's human-rights body.
About 475 people escaped and about 21 people were injured, some seriously, a security ministry spokesman said.
Angry relatives of dead prisoners tried to storm the prison Wednesday to claim the remains of their loved ones, but were restrained by security officers with tear gas, officials and witnesses said.
Officials said the fire's likely cause was a short circuit of the prison's electrical system, but they were also investigating the possibility an inmate set fire to a mattress.
Comayagua Gov. Paola Castro, a former prison employee, told reporters Wednesday an inmate called her moments before the fire erupted, saying he was going to set the facility on fire and kill everyone inside.
Most of the dead choked to death in their cells awaiting a rescue that never came, The New York Times reported. Guards with keys were nowhere to be found, rescuers said.
Some inmates broke out of the prison through the roof and became fugitives, the Times said.
Local firefighters said they were prevented from entering the prison due to shooting.
The country, racked by drug trafficking and still recovering from a 2009 coup, has the world's highest murder rate, at 80 homicides per 100,000 people last year, the United Nations says.
The government declared a state of emergency in the nation's prisons in 2010, saying nearly half its prisons did not meet the minimum requirements for penitentiaries.
Mexican President Felipe Calderon pledged to send medical help and other aid. Chile said it would send experts to help identify burned victims.
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