COMAYAGUA, Honduras (Reuters) - A massive fire raged through an overcrowded prison in Honduras, killing more than 350 inmates, many of them trapped and screaming inside their cells.
It was one of the world's worst prison fires and was apparently started by one of the inmates late on Tuesday night at the jail in Comayagua, about 75 km (45 miles) north of the capital Tegucigalpa.
By the end of it, 359 people were dead, said Danelia Ferrera, a senior official at the attorney general's office.
"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 officials would have to use dental records and DNA in many cases to identify those killed.
A convict was suspected of starting the blaze, said the governor of Comayagua province, Paola Castro.
"One inmate got in touch with me just after 11 p.m. to say another inmate had set fire to the prison in block number 6, presumably by setting fire to a mattress," she said, noting she had met the prisoner during her social work at the prison.
Jails are stuffed full of convicts in Honduras, which is ravaged by violent street gangs, brutal drug traffickers and rampant poverty. According to the United Nations, the country has the highest murder rate in the world.
Violence on the streets is mirrored by frequent riots and deadly clashes between rival gangs behind bars.
But the carnage in the Comayagua prison was shocking even by Honduran standards. Chaos erupted after the blaze took hold.
"We heard screaming from the people who caught on fire," one prisoner told reporters, showing fingers he fractured escaping the blaze. "We had to push up the roof panels to get out."
Injured inmates were filmed being carried out of the jail, some crawling with visible burns.
By the time Red Cross volunteer Jose Manuel Gomez arrived, all he could do for many was gather up their remains.
"We're placing them into bags in parts because when we grab them, they disintegrate," he said.
The inferno 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 had 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 noted some of those presumed dead could have escaped.
Honduras' 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 are still investigating the cause. They said earlier on Wednesday that a short circuit might have been behind the blaze at the Comayagua prison, which housed more than 850 inmates, well above its limit of around 500.
The country's penitentiaries are meant to hold 6,000 but the prison population is more than 12,500.
In 2003, a fire broke out after a riot in another prison in northern Honduras, killing 68 people. A scandal ensued when an investigation found that police and prison staff had shot and stabbed inmates in the melee.
The government pledged to improve the crumbling 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. A slow and inefficient justice system has stretched jails to bursting point.
The country is a major narcotics 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 Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa and Cyntia Barrera and Mica Rosenberg in Mexico; Editing by Kieran Murray