By Girish Gupta
CARACAS (Reuters) - Shots rang out and smoke rose over a Caracas jail on Thursday in the latest outbreak of violence in one of Venezuela's notoriously violent and overcrowded jails.
Authorities are trying to close the chaotic La Planta facility, built in 1964 to house 350 inmates, which now houses nearly 2,500, many armed with heavy weapons.
Prisoners have, however, been resisting closure for weeks, leading to a virtual siege with security forces ringing the jail. Wailing relatives are also camped outside.
"The police haven't told us anything. This is war," said Esperanza Jimenez, crying as she spoke of her 29-year-old son inside the jail.
"God bless Chavez," she added sarcastically.
President Hugo Chavez's government says a dialogue is underway with prisoners about their transfer. He accuses opposition media of exaggerating and fanning the situation.
Critics of the socialist president counter that his government has neglected the prison issue, especially during Chavez's absence from public life for cancer treatment.
"The situation in La Planta is another example of this government's failures on the issues of prisons and Venezuelans' security," said opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who is running against Chavez in an October election.
The situation at La Planta was reminiscent of a siege last year when some 5,000 soldiers took a month to quell violence in another overcrowded prison where riots killed 22 people.
Relatives outside La Planta jail spoke of injuries and deaths inside during Thursday´s flareup, but Reuters reporters on the scene could not independently confirm that.
´HELL IN PARADISE´
The South American nation's prisons are notorious for the ease of access to weapons and drugs as well as mobile phones and computers hooked up to the Internet, allowing inmates easy access to the outside world, often to run criminal gangs.
The country's 34 prisons house nearly 50,000 people, but were built for under a third of that, local rights groups say.
Hundreds die each year in riots and gang fights - 500 last year, according to a local prisons NGO - and the latest violence at La Planta left a district of Caracas virtually off limits for residents and motorists.
In perhaps Venezuela's worst single prison incident, about 130 prisoners were burned or hacked to death with machetes during gang fights at Sabaneta jail in Maracaibo in 1994.
Two years later, authorities at La Planta locked a number of prisoners into cells before firing tear gas inside. A fire broke out, and 25 prisoners burned to death while guards looked on, local news reports said. The charred remains took a week to identify, their bones glued to the furniture inside.
On Thursday, explosions could be heard from within a police cordon round the prison, which is in the ironically named "El Paraiso" (Paradise) district of Caracas, surrounded by hillside slums. Shots sounded for a couple of hours.
"Hell in paradise," was how one local characterized it on Twitter.
Some relatives wore face-masks to protect themselves against teargas swirling from the prison.
Prisons Minister Iris Varela said a small group of holdouts against the transfer were causing the stand-off.
"There is a little group of very violent people who do not want to accept reason," she said. "We hope to resolve the situation as quickly as possible."
(Additional reporting by Andrew Cawthorne; writing by Andrew Cawthorne; editing by Todd Eastham)