By Gustavo Palencia
TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) - A massive fire swept through an overcrowded prison in Honduras and killed more than 350 inmates, including many trapped screaming inside their cells, officials said on Wednesday.
A senior official at the attorney general's office, Danelia Ferrera, said 357 people died in the blaze that began late on Tuesday night at the prison in Comayagua, about 75 kilometers (45 miles) north of the capital Tegucigalpa.
It was one of the worst prison fires ever in Latin America, and local radio reports said many of the inmates were burned to death inside their cells.
"We heard screaming from the people who caught on fire," one prisoner told reporters, showing the fingers he fractured in his escape from the fire. "We had to push up the roof panels to get out."
Worried and angry relatives surrounded the prison on Wednesday morning with some throwing rocks at police and trying to force their way into the prison. Police responded by firing shots into the air and tear gas at the protesters, who were mostly women.
There was confusion over the death toll, with some reports that the 357 figure included more than 100 inmates who escaped during the fire and others that the dead and missing totaled 402 people - almost half the prison's inmates.
Lucy Marder, head of forensic services in Comayagua, said police reported that one of the dead was a woman who stayed overnight and the rest were prisoners, but she said some of the presumed dead could have escaped. Local media reported that the Comayagua fire department chief also died in the blaze.
Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world, according to the United Nations, and there are frequent riots and clashes between members of rival street gangs in its overcrowded prisons. But it was not yet clear if the fire was started during a riot or if it was accident.
The gangs, known as 'maras', started in the United States and then spread down into Central America, with members covered in distinctive tattoos and involved in drug trafficking, armed robbery and protection rackets.
The Comayagua prison housed more than 850 inmates -- well above its capacity. Local police chief Hector Mejia read out the names of 457 survivors outside the prison, but relatives were not appeased.
"This is desperate, they won't tell us anything and I think my husband is dead," a crying Gregoria Zelaya told Canal 5 TV as she stood by a chain link fence.
Local firemen said they were prevented from entering the prison due to gunshots. But Daniel Orellana, head of the prison system, said there was no riot.
"We have two hypotheses, 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," he said.
Across Honduras, prisons are filled to double their capacity with about 12,500 prisoners in jails meant to hold 6,000. More than 100 prisoners were killed in a fire in the textile manufacturing town of San Pedro Sula several years ago, and survivors said later that guards fired on prisoners trying to escape the blaze.
Honduras clocked more than 80 homicides per 100,000 people in 2009, a rate 16 times that of the United States, according to a United Nations report last year.
The country is a major drug trafficking transit point for South American cocaine moving north to consumers in the United States, and authorities say there is increasing presence of violent Mexican drug cartels in the country.
A political crisis ripped through Honduras in mid-2009 when a widely-condemned coup toppled the democratically elected president but the country has been trying to heal divisions since the election of President Porfirio Lobo later that year.
(Additional reporting by Cyntia Barrera and Mica Rosenberg in Mexico; Editing by Philip Barbara and Kieran Murray)