Twenty-nine detainees were killed and 19 police officers were wounded in a confrontation in a cellblock in central Venezuela in what a state official called a failed escape attempt, but human rights groups described as a massacre.
The incident tookplace in the town of Acarigua in a municipal police cellblock in the centralstate of Portuguesa.
"There was anattempted escape and a fight broke out among(rival) gangs," PortuguesaCitizen Security Secretary Oscar Valero told reporters. "With policeintervention to prevent the escape, well, there were 29 deaths," he said,adding that some 355 people were being held in the cellblock.
Detainees detonatedthree grenades, which wounded 19 police officers, he said. Venezuela'sInformation Ministry did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
Human rights groupsquestioned the official version of the events.
"How is itthat there was a confrontation between prisoners and police, but there are onlydead prisoners?" Humberto Prado of the Venezuelan Prisons Observatory saidin a telephone interview. "And if the prisoners had weapons, how did thoseweapons get in?"
Detainees forseveral days had been demanding that government ombudsmen help them avoid beingtransferred to distant prisons where they would not be able to receive visitsfrom relatives, Prado said.
Authorities enteredthe cell block to carry out searches and remove visiting women when violencebroke out, Prado said, estimating the facility in fact held some 540 inmates.
Police cellblocksin Venezuela are meant to hold citizens for 48 hours while they face formalcharges. But detained citizens can spend months or even years in suchfacilities because prisons are too overcrowded to receive them and because ofchronic delays in basic criminal justice proceedings required to indict them.
In 2018, a riotthat led to a fire in a police cellblock in the central city of Valencia killed68 people, including two women who were visiting.
Carlos Nieto of human rights group A Window to Freedom said the country has around 500 cellblocks with capacity to hold around 7,000 people that currently have nearly 55,000 detainees in custody.