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A woman kicks at a riot police shield as relatives of prisoners wait to hear news about their family members imprisoned at a police station where a riot broke out, in Valencia, Venezuela, on March 28, 2018.Juan Carlos Hernandez/The Associated Press

Authorities released little information on a deadly riot and fire at a Venezuelan police station Wednesday, as relatives said dozens of detainees were kept in squalid conditions and expressed fear that their loved ones were dead.

Officials confirmed Wednesday night that there were fatalities but said they were still determining the exact number. They said they would not provide any estimates “out of respect for the families.”

“In the right moment we will provide information on the total number of victims that today puts the state of Carabobo in mourning,” said Jesus Santander, secretary general of the local government.

The scant information came hours after a large crowd of angry relatives demanding to know if their loved ones had survived clashed with officers in riot gear. Police launched tear gas to disperse the crowd of screaming men and women in Valencia, about 100 miles (160 kilometres) west of Caracas.

“I don’t know if my son is dead or alive!” cried Aida Parra, who said she last saw her son a day before, when she went to deliver him food. “They haven’t told me anything.”

A Window to Freedom, a non-profit group that monitors conditions at Venezuela’s jails, said preliminary but unconfirmed information indicated the riot began when an armed detainee shot an officer in the leg. Shortly after that a fire broke out, with flames growing quickly as the blaze spread to mattresses in the cells, it said. Rescuers apparently had to break a hole through a wall to free some of the prisoners inside.

Photos shared by the group showed prisoners being taken out on stretchers, their limbs frozen in awkward positions as skin peeled off.

A Window to Freedom’s director, Carlos Nieto Palma, said officials should be held accountable for failing to address deteriorating conditions in police station jails. The group said overcrowding has become common throughout the country as detainees are kept long past customary brief holding periods before being sent to other larger jails before trial or freed.

“It’s grave and alarming,” Nieto Palma said. “What happened today in Carabobo is a sign of that.”

Outside the police station, some relatives buried their hands in their faces as tears streamed down their cheeks. Others had to be held up with the support of friends and family as they collapsed in despair. Still others wept quietly and clutched their hands in prayer.

Nearby, National Guard troops wearing bulletproof vests and carrying rifles across their backs walked in and out of the station. Fire trucks and ambulances stood outside, and unused stretchers leaned against a wall.

Opposition lawmaker Juan Miguel Matheus demanded that the pro-government leader of Carabobo state inform relatives about what had happened.

“The desperation of relatives should not be played with,” he said.

Clashes between prisoners and guards are not uncommon in Venezuela. Inmates are frequently able to obtain weapons and drugs with the help of corrupt guards and heavily armed groups control cellblock fiefdoms.

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