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Venezuela inmates free 25 hostages, hold 26
Inmates free 25 hostages, still hold 26 prison employees captive in Venezuela
By The Associated Press

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) ' Prison inmates who took more than 50 guards and other prison workers hostage earlier this month have released more than two dozen captives after negotiations, Venezuelan authorities said.

Inmates at Tocuyito prison in north-central Venezuela were still holding 26 prison employees on Monday, said regional prison administrator Reinaldo Rangel.

The standoff has once again heightened tensions in a severely overcrowded prison system where guns and drugs are commonplace and where protesting inmates have periodically seized hostages to press their demands.

"What we've asked is for them to put aside that position," Rangel said in comments posted on the Venezuelan website Noticias24. "They should free them and turn over their weapons."

He first confirmed the release of 25 hostages on Sunday in the most detailed remarks about the event from a government official since activists reported the hostages seized on Oct. 14 near the city of Valencia.

Inmates released the captives after authorities agreed to transfer 30 prisoners to other facilities, Rangel said. The inmates have demanded improved prison conditions and the transfer of about 50 inmates closer to their families and the courts where their cases are being heard, said Carlos Nieto, a lawyer and prisons activist who heads the group Una Ventana a la Libertad.

Rangel said talks with the prisoners were continuing. The prison employees still being held include 22 women and four men, and none of them have been harmed, he said. Those freed included 17 prison guards and eight administrative employees.

Milena Mendoza said she and a dozen other relatives of hostages have been nervously waiting outside the prison every day for any news about those inside. She said her 21-year-old daughter, a computer teacher, had just started giving classes in the prison.

"I only leave to go eat nearby, and then I come back," Mendoza told The Associated Press by telephone. "With this sort of anguish, who can sleep?"

Mendoza, 39, said her daughter managed to call her two days ago using a phone inside the prison, and told her she was worn out and had no way to bathe.

"She was hungry because food was scarce," said Mendoza, who said she and other relatives were standing under intense sunshine outside the prison on Monday.

Many inmates in the country's prisons have been held for months if not years while waiting for their cases to be heard. Nieto told the AP that the cases of some inmates in Tocuyito have been delayed because courts far from the prison are hearing them.

Across the country, inmates have regularly seized relatives of prisoners during visiting hours, and most recently, taken prison guards and other officials.

In May, inmates took the warden and 14 other officers hostage at a Caracas prison, holding them for more than a day before freeing them after authorities pledged to investigate complaints that several inmates had been abused.

President Hugo Chavez's government has recognized prison crowding as a problem, and a newly appointed prisons minister, Iris Varela, has pledged to come up with solutions. The countries' more than 30 prisons were designed to hold about 12,000 prisoners but are currently packed with about 47,000 inmates, according to official figures.

A bloody prison uprising in June focused new attention on the country's prison problems. That rebellion exploded after thousands of troops stormed one of two adjacent prisons seeking to disarm inmates days after a riot killed 22 people. The raid set off gunfights between troops and inmates that killed one prisoner and two soldiers.

The 27-day standoff ended after negotiations between officials and inmates.

Last year, 476 people died and 967 were injured in prison violence, according to figures compiled by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Nieto was visiting Washington this week to urge the commission to put pressure on Venezuela to urgently address its prison problems, which he said are "getting worse all the time."

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