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Friday, January 1, 1999 Published at 20:56 GMT

World: Americas

Prisoners escape while Brazil celebrates

Sao Paulo's overcrowded Carandiru jail - scene of prison massacres in 1992

Noisy New Year's celebrations in Brazil provided cover for two jail breaks, allowing more than 100 prisoners to escape in two separate incidents on Friday.

In Sao Paulo, a police spokesman said 15 armed men surprised police guarding Vila Joaniza prison in the south of the city.

The noise from post-midnight fireworks masked their gunshots.

No one was injured in the incident, but 63 prisoners escaped. Police later recaptured two.

In a southern Rio de Janeiro suburb, 43 inmates escaped from another prison at about 2am local time as the neighbourhood's New Year's party was in full swing.

Guards at the Todos os Santos jail were overpowered with their own weapons.

Police later recaptured three of the prisoners.

The holiday season in Brazil is notorious for prisoner revolts and escape attempts.

Overcrowding is endemic in Brazil's prison system, with many convicted inmates jammed into police lockups designed only for short-term use.

Human rights groups say Sao Paulo, Brazil's richest and most populous state, has the most prisoners in the nation, about half of whom are held in police lockups and jails.

Gangs across the country have recently raided prisons in efforts to free inmates.

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