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Last Updated: Tuesday, 18 May, 2004, 10:18 GMT 11:18 UK
Guards accused over Honduras fire
The bodies of some of the victims lie in the prison grounds
The scale of the tragedy at the jail has shocked Hondurans
Survivors of a devastating fire that killed 103 inmates in a Honduran prison say many died because guards refused to open the cells in time.

"We screamed at them to let us out," one told AP, saying they had to break down the doors themselves.

The victims, many of them gang members, either suffocated or were burned alive.

Prison officials insist they freed the inmates as quickly as they could, while the Honduran president has promised a full inquiry.

'Left to die'

President Ricardo Maduro broke off a European tour to return to handle the crisis personally.

He promised a thorough investigation into the fire at the prison in the northern city of San Pedro Sula - the second major tragedy to hit a Honduran jail in just over a year.

In April 2003, fighting between rival gang members and a subsequent fire left 69 people dead.

Monday's fire broke out in a block housing mainly members of the "Mara Salvatrucha" street gang - one of the most violent of Central America's gangs.

Police say it was probably caused by an electrical short circuit, but some of the survivors claim it was started by other inmates.

They also allege that guards refused to open the cell block, where 186 prisoners were housed in a space built for 50.

"They wanted to leave us to die," survivors told the Honduran newspaper, La Prensa.

"We heard them say 'let's leave these pieces of garbage to die'".

However, coroners said there was so far no evidence to support claims by some inmates that guards had shot at them to stop them getting out.

Desperate gang members

Human rights activists said overcrowding had contributed to the high number of deaths and injuries. Several of the 23 people taken to hospital have severe burns.

The prison population has grown over the past year after President Maduro's administration began taking tough action against gangs.

Last August, Mr Maduro backed legislation outlawing gangs. Hundreds of suspects have been rounded up on charges of violence, robbery and drug-related offences.

Itsmania Pineda, who works with gang members, told AP the prison was under great pressure, filled with desperate gang members.

In Honduras, some 30,000 youths - mostly recruited from street children - are believed to be gang members.

The "maras", which have their origins in the street gangs of Los Angeles, are active in several Central American countries

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