CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Close to 1,000 inmates have filed out of a troubled penitentiary where a group of armed prisoners has held off authorities in a three-week standoff, Venezuelan officials said Friday.
Groups of inmates emerged from La Planta prison with their hands on their heads, flanked by troops, and stepped aboard trucks to be transferred to other prisons.
The prisoners began leaving on Thursday night hours after heavy gunfire erupted inside the prison during clashes that also left clouds of tear gas wafting through the adjacent neighborhood. The authorities have been trying to persuade members of an armed group inside La Planta to leave so it can be shut down.
"It's an operation that will continue until this facility is evacuated," said Iris Varela, the government's prisons minister. "I estimate that at the rate we're going, we could finish today."
She said about 600 had left the prison out of a population of roughly 1,200 a day earlier, but said she didn't have a precise count of how many remained inside. Later, President Hugo Chavez said during a telephone call broadcast on state television that he had been informed that close to 1,000 inmates had left the prison.
It was unclear whether some of the prisoners inside intended to keep resisting.
At least three people in areas outside the prison were wounded by stray bullets during the frenzy of shooting on Thursday, said Diosdado Cabello, National Assembly president.
Varela said the gunfire at La Planta resulted from a confrontation between inmates. Some prisoners, however, have accused National Guard troops of involvement. Varela said that if any prisoners are wounded, they should be brought out for treatment.
Venezuela's government is trying to close La Planta following two escape attempts and complaints of overcrowding, saying the facility doesn't meet standards. Hundreds of the prison's inmates have been transferred to other lockups in recent weeks, but a group of armed inmates has effectively kept the authorities out of the prison since late last month.
"This is truly a place where no human being can be under any conditions," Varela said on television outside La Planta. She noted that before the recent escape attempts one young woman was killed last month during a visit and that the authorities subsequently halted visits by inmates' relatives.
She said many prisoners were being moved to El Rodeo I prison east of Caracas. That prison was the scene of clashes and a 27-day standoff last year pitting armed inmates against troops. Officials say the prison has been partially rebuilt after some areas were destroyed by fire during the violence and walls were knocked down by authorities searching for hidden weapons and other contraband.
Violence is common inside Venezuela's severely crowded prisons, where inmates often manage to obtain weapons and drugs with the help of corrupt guards. The watchdog group Venezuelan Prisons Observatory says about 560 people died in Venezuelan prisons last year, up from 476 in 2010.
Before the violence died down on Thursday, skirmishes erupted outside the prison between distraught relatives of inmates and troops using tear gas to drive them away.
Tensions at La Planta prison have grown since April 27, when Varela said authorities found a tunnel dug by inmates that led to a sewer, foiling an escape attempt. Three days later, gunfire erupted at the prison after what Varela described as another escape attempt.
In a May 8 incident, heavy gunfire rang out at the prison and one man in a nearby apartment was killed by a stray bullet.
Associated Press writers Jorge Rueda and Christopher Toothaker contributed to this report.