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Hundreds leave Venezuelan prison amid standoff

Associated Press Modified: May 18, 2012 at 6:46 pm •  Published: May 18, 2012

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.

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