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Police storm Guatemala juvenile center and free guards

Henry MORALES, with Edgar CALDERON in Guatemala City
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Riot police control inmates at a juvenile detention center in San Jose Pinula, east of Guatemala City, following a deadly prison riot

Guatemalan police stormed a juvenile detention center Monday and freed four guards taken hostage by inmates who killed two others during a riot over what they called harsh treatment.

But one of the hostages died soon thereafter of injuries suffered during the ordeal, which started around midday Sunday. Authorities said he had been beaten severely and stabbed.

Two other freed captives have head injuries, said a spokesman for the fire department, Mario Cruz.

Journalists outside the Stage II facility for boys in San Jose Pinula, just to the east of Guatemala City, saw dozens of armed officers rush inside the blue-and-white building surrounded by barbed wire fences, while others took positions on the roof. Yells and detonations were heard from inside during the raid.

President Jimmy Morales later tweeted: "Thanks to God and to the quick and efficient action of our @PNCdeGuatemala" (Guatemala's national police force).

The scene unfolded less than two weeks after 40 teenage girls died in a fire at a nearby overcrowded youth shelter in the same town.

Officials earlier said two security guards at the Stage II center were killed and five were injured by the inmates. One of those five was released early Monday and taken to a hospital.

Pablo Castillo, a spokesman for the national police, told AFP that negotiations to free the remaining four guards taken hostage had broken down. And that is when the police moved in.

The Guatemalan prosecutor's office for human rights said about 40 members of the feared Barrio 18 street gang had led the revolt in the Stage II juvenile center. It said the riot started after a visit by other members of the gang.

The facility is supposed to house minors, but of 56 known gang members, 39 are adults, said Vladimir Lopez, deputy minister of the social welfare ministry.

Fire fighters put out a blaze that had started in part of the facility.

- Alleged maltreatment -

The youth inmates were said to have rebelled against maltreatment by guards.

A similar motive was reported in the nearby Virgin of the Assumption shelter, where teenagers had claimed sexual and other abuse by personnel before the deadly March 8 fire. Staff denied the allegations.

That deadly blaze prompted public indignation and numerous protests that have rocked the government of President Jimmy Morales.

Local media reports said the Stage II inmates had made a series of demands, including the return of colleagues sent to other centers, better food and the easing of restrictions on visits.

Both the Stage II and Virgin of the Assumption facilities are managed by the social welfare ministry.

Its head, Carlos Rodas, and several of his officials were dismissed and arrested in the wake of the blaze at the shelter.

The Stage II center was the scene of a battle between rival gangs in 2005 that left 14 people dead.

The facility held gang members mixed with other detainees unaffiliated with the gangs, according to Hilda Morales, a deputy prosecutor for human rights.

The head of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, Roberto Caldas of Brazil, said during a session being held in Guatemala that the situation for children in the country needed improvement.

Guatemala is one of the most dangerous countries in Latin America, prey to Barrio 18 and other gangs. Nearly 60 percent of its 16 million inhabitants live in poverty, according to the World Bank.