updated 3/7/2005 12:50:04 PM ET 2005-03-07T17:50:04

Rival gangs fighting for control of a provincial Dominican Republic prison set pillows and sheets ablaze Monday, starting a fire that killed at least 133 people after rescuers were thwarted by a jammed entrance, officials said.

Only 26 inmates were rescued from the public jail in Higuey, 75 miles northeast of the capital on the island’s eastern tip, said National Police Chief Manuel de Jesus Perez Sanchez.

Four inmates suffered bullet wounds, but he had no details.

Guards could not rescue prisoners from the blazing cell block because the entrance was jammed, National Police spokesman Gen. Simon Diaz said. He did not know why the entrance was jammed.

By late Monday morning, rescuers had pulled 133 bodies from the cell block, Perez Sanchez said.

Higuey fire chief Nestor Vera said, “Most of the prisoners we’re seeing are dead or badly wounded.” He said bodies were “piled up on top of each other.”

The dead included two inmates from Puerto Rico, he said.

Army helicopters were ferrying the wounded to hospitals in the capital, Santo Domingo, he said Gen. Ramon de la Cruz Martinez, the national director of prisons.

The toll of dead and injured was 159, although officials said earlier there were 148 prisoners in the jail. Dominican Republic jails are notorious for being overcrowded, as the U.S. State Department reported last week.

The Dominican Republic’s 35 prisons were built to hold 9,000 prisoners but last year held more than 13,500, the State Department said in its annual report on human rights.

“Some prisons were totally out of the authorities’ control and were, in effect, operated by armed inmates,” the department said.

The violence began Sunday night when one inmate shot and wounded a member of a rival gang, and dozens of prisoners began fighting over which gang would control the prisoners, de la Cruz Martinez said. The gang that controls the prison sells food, cigarettes and drugs to the other prisoners.

The fight was broken up by guards, but at about 12:30 a.m. many prisoners began rioting, setting fire to pillows and sheets in their cells, Diaz said.

Injured prisoner Jose Pichard Silverio, being treated for minor burns on his arms and face at Luis Eduardo Aybar hospital in Santo Domingo, said, “The problem began because there were two Higuey people who wanted to control the prison and were extorting 1,000 pesos ($25) from each of us.”

Monday’s fire was the latest in a series of deadly blazes at Dominican Republic jails. Thirty prisoners died in September 2002 when prisoners at La Vega set fire to mattresses at a prison built for 50 inmates but holding 400 men in nine cells at the time.

Last month, a fire from an electrical shortage in the largest prison in Santo Domingo left one prisoner dead.

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