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'Weapons of war' used on Venezuela inmates?

Image: Inmates' relatives embrace as they cry outside of El Rodeo I prison
Inmate's relatives embrace as they cry outside of El Rodeo I prison in Guatire, Venezuela, Sunday.Fernando Llano / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

National Guard troops fired tear gas at a prison as they tried to dislodge a group of heavily armed inmates who have now staved off attempts to retake control for five days.

Troops escorted 36 inmates from cellblocks inside the Rodeo II prison to areas that are no longer controlled by rebellious prisoners, Justice Minister Tareck El Aissami told state television. At least 11 of the inmates were wounded, he said.

National Guard Gen. Luis Motta Dominguez said the inmates evacuated from the cellblocks "were hostages of the violent prisoners."

A 5,000-strong security force and inmates have engaged in gunbattles at the prison Rodeo I and the adjacent lockup Rodeo II since the military launched a weapons search on Friday.

"The situation is the same," inmate Rafael Contreras said from inside Rodeo II. He spoke to The Associated Press after being reached by cell phone by one of the inmates' relatives outside the prison.

"They are using weapons of war against us," Contreras said, referring to the assault rifles of the troops who have surrounded the prison.

Contreras told the AP that prisoners were also well armed, but he insisted they were acting in self defense. "We use them to defend ourselves at times like this," he said.

Decomposing bodies?
El Aissami told Union Radio earlier Monday that only one prisoner and two National Guard troops have been killed during the clashes. At least 20 other troops have been wounded, he said.

Contreras said that there have been 17 deaths amid the gunfire, and that several bodies were decomposing in the Rodeo II prison with the inmates.

Maj. Jorge Galindo, a Justice Ministry official, declined to comment on the claim, saying authorities would not provide additional details until the military takes control of the prison.

"They are lying," El Aissami said earlier of claims the death toll had risen.

A small group of inmates has prevented others from leaving the prison, he said.

The Venezuelan national guard shoots tear gas to El Rodeo prison in Guatire, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Caracas, on June 20, 2011. National guard troops were scrambling Sunday trying to retake control of Venezuela's El Rodeo prison, where 25 people have been killed in three days of unrest, the country's Interior chief said. El Rodeo has remained the most violent prison in Venezuela since 1999, when a battle between guards and prisoners left 27 people dead. AFP PHOTO/Leo RAMIREZ (Photo credit should read LEO RAMIREZ/AFP/Getty Images)Leo Ramirez / AFP

Violence erupted in the El Rodeo I prison on June 12 when a riot broke out that left 22 people dead.

Days later, thousands of troops stormed the prison to disarm the inmates.

Dominguez said leaders of the violent uprising inside Rodeo II are seeking to extend the conflict, calling fellow inmates inside other prisons and trying to convince them to attack National Guard troops.

Venezuela's severely crowded prisons have suffered repeated violent outbursts as rival gangs often fight for control of cellblocks and the sale of weapons and drugs.

The country's 30 prisons were built to hold 12,500 prisoners but instead hold about 49,000, according to the Venezuelan Prisons Observatory, a group that monitors prison conditions.

Last year, 476 people died and 967 were injured in the prison system, according to figures compiled by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.