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Venezuelan authorities move inmates out of prison

Venezuelan government officials have transferred more than half of the inmates out of a trouble-ridden prison where gunfire recently erupted and where authorities reported two escape attempts.

More than half of the inmates at La Planta prison in Caracas had been moved out, most of them voluntarily transferred to other prisons, said Iris Varela, the government's top prisons officials. She told reporters on Saturday that 55 inmates also were freed.

Varela said the prison will be shut down because it doesn't meet required standards and "can't be repaired." She didn't say how many inmates remained in the prison or specify how soon it could be entirely closed.

Tensions have grown at the prison recently after what the authorities said were two escape attempts. On April 27, Varela said the authorities foiled an escape attempt when they found a tunnel dug by inmates that led to a sewer. On April 30, gunfire erupted at the prison after what Varela described as another escape attempt.

National Guard troops and police were subsequently posted outside the prison recently while the authorities said they were in talks with inmates.

Inside Venezuela's prisons, inmates often manage to obtain weapons with help from corrupt guards, and violence is common. The watchdog group Venezuelan Prisons Observatory said about 560 people died in Venezuelan prisons last year, up from 476 in 2010.

Varela said dialogue between inmates and authorities had led to the transfers out of the crowded prison. She said the situation was peaceful, but didn't say whether some inmates were still resisting against prison authorities.

Prison rights activist Carlos Nieto, who leads the non-governmental organization Una Ventana a la Libertad, had said before the transfers that La Planta prison was built for about 350 prisoners but housed about 2,600.

Similar problems exist at prisons across the country. In all, Venezuela's prisons were built to hold about 12,000 inmates, but officials have said they hold about 47,000.

When asked how other prisons would cope with the influx of inmates moved out of La Planta, Varela said: "there is space in other detention centers."

Nieto disputed that, saying no other Venezuelan prison has room to accept more inmates. "Improvised measures like this are only going to worsen the crisis that exists in other prisons," he said.