By Gustavo Palencia
TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) - A massive fire swept through an overcrowded prison in Honduras and killed more than 350 inmates, many of them trapped and screaming inside their cells.
A senior official at the attorney general's office, Danelia Ferrera, said 359 people died in the blaze that began late on Tuesday night at the prison in Comayagua, about 75 km (45 miles) north of the capital Tegucigalpa.
"It's a terrible scene ... Our staff went into the cells and the bodies are charred, most of them are unrecognizable," Ferrera told Reuters, adding that officials would have to use dental records and DNA in many cases to identify those killed.
Battered by violent street gangs and drug trafficking, Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world, according to the United Nations.
There are frequent riots and clashes between rival gangs in its cramped jails, although it was not yet clear if the Comayagua blaze - one of the worst prisons fires ever in Latin America - was started deliberately or if it was an accident.
"We heard screaming from the people who caught on fire," one prisoner told reporters, showing the fingers he fractured in his escape from the fire. "We had to push up the roof panels to get out."
Injured prisoners were filmed being carried out of the jail, some crawling with visible burns. It was the third major prison fire in Honduras since 2003 with dilapidated jails packed at more than double their capacity across the Central American nation.
Worried and angry relatives surrounded the prison on Wednesday morning, at one point throwing rocks at police and trying to force their way inside the prison.
Police responded by firing shots into the air and shooting tear gas at protesters, most of whom were women.
President Porfirio Lobo said he suspended the director of the Comayagua prison and the head of the national prison system to ensure a thorough investigation.
He promised to "take urgent measures to deal with this tragedy, which has plunged all Hondurans into mourning."
Police reported that one of the dead was a woman who had stayed overnight at the prison and the rest were inmates, but said some of the presumed dead could have escaped.
VIOLENT GANGS, DRUGS
Honduras' notoriously violent street gangs, known as 'maras', gained power inside Hispanic neighborhoods in the United States in the 1980s and then spread down into Central America. Their members wear distinctive tattoos and are involved in drugs and weapons trafficking, armed robbery and protection rackets.
A local police chief read out the names of 457 survivors outside the prison on Wednesday, but relatives still clamored for more information.
"This is desperate, they won't tell us anything and I think my husband is dead," a crying Gregoria Zelaya told Canal 5 TV as she stood by a chain link fence.
Officials were not sure of the cause of the fire.
"There is one hypothesis that is was a short circuit in the electrical system, or (an inmate) set fire to a mattress," said Ferrera who was at the scene. "But there is not a definitive cause yet, we are still investigating."
Across Honduras, prisons are filled to double their capacity with about 12,500 prisoners in jails meant to hold 6,000. The Comayagua prison housed more than 850 inmates -- well above its limit of around 500.
In 2003, a fire broke out after a riot in another prison in northern Honduras, killing 68 people and causing a scandal when an investigation found that police and prison staff had shot and stabbed inmates in the melee.
The government pledged to improve the deficient prison system but just a year later more than 100 prisoners were killed in a fire in San Pedro Sula. Survivors of that blaze said guards fired on inmates trying to escape or left them locked up to die.
Honduras had more than 80 homicides per 100,000 people in 2009, a rate 16 times that of the United States, according to a United Nations report last year and a slow and inefficient justice system has led to the overflowing jails.
The country is a major drug trafficking transit point for South American cocaine moving north to consumers in the United States, and authorities say they are grappling with a growing presence of violent Mexican drug cartels.
A political crisis ripped through Honduras in mid-2009 when a widely-condemned coup toppled the democratically elected president but the country has been trying to heal divisions since Lobo was elected later that year.
(Additional reporting by Cyntia Barrera and Mica Rosenberg in Mexico; Editing by Kieran Murray)