SANTIAGO, Chile — Fire swept through an overcrowded prison in northern Chile early Monday, killing 26 inmates who suffocated or were burned inside their sleeping quarters, authorities said.
The government and inmates gave sharply conflicting reports about the cause of the fire.
Authorities said the fire began when rebellious inmates set mattresses and blankets ablaze near their dormitory door. A spokesman for the inmates, however, said the fire was an accident and alleged that the guards were negligent in their reaction to the flames, which quickly engulfed the area in the prison in Iquique, about 1,000 miles north of Santiago, the capital.
"The result is 26 victims. They were all just young kids," the unidentified inmate told reporters.
Authorities said the victims were mostly youthful, first-time offenders.
Justice Minister Jose Antonio Gomez said that "an independent investigation, as transparent as possible, has begun to clear up these conflicting versions."
He said it will be up to the courts to determine what happened, adding, "We will accept their verdict."
Gomez flew to Iquique from Santiago, toured the fire-damaged area and talked to guards and inmates.
The coroner's office said identification of the victims could take a long time because some of the bodies were burned beyond recognition.
"They were not able to escape because the door of the dormitory was, of course, closed," said Patricio Zapata, the regional governor.
President Ricardo Lagos departed from his prepared remarks for his state-of-the-nation address, saying the prison houses 1,700 inmates--well above its capacity of 1,000. Overcrowding is not unique to Iquique, he said.
"Doubling the capacity of Chile's prison system is the only way we have to tackle this problem," Lagos said.
Hundreds of anxious relatives of the inmates rushed to the prison. At one point, police used tear gas to scatter some of those who tried to enter the building and were throwing rocks at police and prison guards.
A spokeswoman for the relatives, Cecilia Valdovinos, rejected any suggestion that the prisoners were rebellious or trying to escape.
"We are now demanding that no reprisals be taken against the inmates. This was not a mutiny or jailbreak," she said.
Relatives said inmates had thrown pieces of paper over the wall stating that the fire was an accident and had been caused by an electrical short-circuit.
The messages "said there was no riot. It was a short-circuit that caused the fire and the prisoners say they warned the guard on duty . . . and he called the anti-riot squad," one relative said.
Iquique's fire chief, Federico Petrillo, said there was a delay in the prison authorities' call for help.
"You could say it was an accident," Petrillo said, though he would not specify if a short-circuit was the cause.