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TV viewers hear screams of inmates

A fire started during an inmate brawl tore through an overcrowded prison in Chile, killing at least 81 people and seriously injuring 14.

Viewers heard the screams of inmates after a prisoner using an illegal mobile phone called state television for help.

The blaze at San Miguel prison, which preliminary reports indicated may have been set deliberately, was the worst disaster in the history of Chile's penal system, health minister Jaime Manalich said.

The fire began during fighting between inmates and reached its maximum intensity in just three minutes, interior minister Rodribo Hinzpeter said. It was brought under control in three hours.

Police operations director Jaime Concha insisted police acted quickly despite coping with 1,900 inmates at the prison built for 700.

Chilean television broadcast spine-chilling audio and video from the prison fire, some of it shot by prisoners using banned phones and sent to stations.

The state channel aired a recording of an inmate calling from inside the prison and pleading for help. Screams could be heard in the background. Other broadcasts showed the smoked-filled prison tower and inmates shouting over and over, "The doors!" and "We're burning!".

Private Mega TV broadcast a recording made by a prisoner of inmates in the burning tower screaming "Help! Help! Open the doors!"

Santiago region governor Fernando Echeverria said the official death toll was 81. Many of the bodies were unrecognisable and officials said most would have to be identified by DNA.

Firefighters said they were alerted by a call from a mobile phone inside the prison, a collection of cement towers that rises above a middle class neighbourhood in Chile's capital.

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