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68 killed in Venezuelan police station riot and fire

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Rioting and a fire in the cells of a Venezuelan police station in the central city of Valencia killed 68 people, according to the government and witnesses, reported Channel News Asia (Singapore).

Families hoping for news outside the police station were dispersed with tear gas and authorities did not give information until late into the evening.

“The State Prosecutor’s Office guarantees to deepen investigations to immediately clarify what happened in these painful events that have left dozens of Venezuelan families in mourning,” said Chief Prosecutor Tarek William Saab on Twitter.

Venezuelan prisons are notoriously overcrowded and filled with weapons and drugs. Riots leaving dozens dead are not uncommon.

State official Jesus Santander said the state of Carabobo was in mourning after the incident in the city of Valencia.

"Forensic doctors are determining the number of fatalities," Santander said. A policeman was shot in the leg and was in a stable condition and firefighters had extinguished the flames, he said.

Many Venezuelan prisons are lawless and have been for decades. Prisoners often openly wield machine guns and grenades, use drugs and leave guards powerless.

"There are people who are inside those dungeons (...) and the authorities do not know they exist because they do not dare to enter," said Humberto Prado, a local prisons rights activist.

The cells at the police headquarters are used as a temporary jail, from where detainees are taken to court to be sentenced.

The nongovernmental organization Una Ventana a la Libertad (A Window to Freedom), which campaigns for prison reform in Venezuela, blamed the Ministry of Corrections and the minister responsible, Iris Valera, for the deaths.

The country's regional police were in a state of chaos due to the ministry's negligence, spokesman Carlos Nieto Palma said, and prison conditions were poor.

"This is serious and alarming," he said. "What happened today is a sign (of poor prison conditions) ... and it is experienced throughout Venezuela."

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