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Some 475 people escaped and 356 are missing and presumed dead, said Hector Ivan Mejia, a spokesman for the Honduras Security Ministry. He said 21 people had been injured.

A 1930 prison fire in Ohio killed at least 320 prisoners.

Honduras has one of the world’s highest rates of violent crime, and its overcrowded and dilapidated prisons have been hit by a string of deadly riots and fires in recent years. Officials have repeatedly pledged to improve conditions, only to say they don’t have sufficient funds.

According to government statistics, the Comayagua prison was built in the 1940s for 400 people but held more than 800 prisoners watched over by about 100 guards.

“It’s strange because the Comayagua prison has been a model of tranquility,” Castro told reporters.

Honduran President Porfirio Lobo said on national television that he had suspended the country’s top penal officials and said he would request international assistance in carrying out a thorough and transparent investigation.

“This is a day of profound sadness,” he said.

Outraged relatives of dead inmates tried to storm the gates of the prison Wednesday morning to recover the remains of their loves ones, witnesses told The Associated Press. The crowds were driven back by police officers firing tear gas.

Channel 5 television showed dozens of inmates’ relatives hurling rocks at officers.

“We want to see the body,” said Juan Martinez, whose son was reported dead. “We’ll be here until we get to do that.”

The prison housed people convicted of serious crimes such as murder, Danilo Orellana, director of the national prison system, told the Associated Press. The convicts are allowed to work outside, however, unlike those held in a maximum-security facility for the most dangerous prisoners in the capital.

It sits in the middle of irrigated fields and several large ponds, and appears to be comprised of eight buildings set closely together. Beyond the fields are the city streets of the town of Comayagua. A single dirt, tree-lined road leads in, passing a soccer field on the property. There is an open, dirt prison yard within the central compound.

A few blocks from the prison, Comayagua bustles with fast-food restaurants, hotels and gas stations.

Fire officials said the fire started around 10:50 p.m. Tuesday when the inmate set his bedding alight.

“Some of his cellmates said that he screamed: ‘We will all die here!’ And in five minutes everything burned,” Orellana said. He did not identify the man or speculate about his motivation. Leonel Silva, fire chief in Comayagua, a town 90 miles (140 kilometers) north of the capital, confirmed Orellana’s account to reporters on the scene.

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