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5 police officials suspected in Venezuela jail fire detained

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A woman grieves over the coffin containing the remains of Jose Manuel Perez, 28, at the Municipal Cemetery of Valencia, Venezuela, Friday.

CARACAS, Venezuela >> Five police officials are suspected of being responsible for a fire that killed 68 people in a police station jail in Venezuela and have been detained, the nation’s chief prosecutor said today.

Tarek William Saab wrote on Twitter that the officials are believed “responsible for the tragic events that caused the death of 68 citizens” but provided no further details.

Among the detained is Jose Luis Rodriguez, sub-director of the police station in Valencia where a fire tore through cells where about 200 prisoners were being kept.

Relatives and human rights advocates have been pressing the government to provide a full account of what happened at the police station jail on Wednesday morning. Some family members of those killed have said their loved ones called before the fire and said their jailers were pouring gasoline in the cellblock. Other accounts suggest it was the inmates themselves who started the blaze in an attempt to escape.

In his brief remarks on social media, Saab said the nation’s Public Ministry would provide “an explanation of these tragic events and punishment to all those responsible.”

The fire is one of the worst mass casualty events at a jail in Venezuela’s history. As the nation plunges into one of the most severe economic contractions in modern Latin American history, prisoner rights advocates say the already dire conditions within jails and prisons have become even worse.

Overcrowded cells, judicial delays, and hunger have increasingly become the norm and corruption among officials turned jails into cellblock fiefdoms ruled by armed gangs.

Officials have not yet said how the fire started and what role the officers detained might have played.

Family members buried many of the dead in a freshly dug mass tomb on Friday.

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