RIO DE JANEIRO (AFP) - Rioting inmates in Brazil decapitated and brutally assaulted their rivals, killing at least 60, when fighting erupted between two gangs at a prison in the Amazon region, officials said Monday.
The 17-hour riot broke out Sunday afternoon and lasted through the night at a prison on the outskirts of Manaus, the capital of Amazonas state, said state public security secretary Sergio Fontes.
He called it "the biggest massacre" ever committed at a prison in the state.
Police were only able to restore order on Monday morning, freeing 12 guards who had been taken hostage, he said.
They found a horrific scene inside the Anisio Jobim correctional centre.
"Many (victims) were decapitated, and they all suffered a lot of violence," Fontes told a press conference.
He said the gruesome scene appeared aimed at sending a message from the Family of the North (FDN), a powerful local gang, to rivals from the First Capital Command (PCC), one of Brazil's largest gangs, whose base is in Sao Paulo, some 2,700 kilometres to the southeast.
"During the negotiations (to end the riot), the prisoners had almost no demands. Their only request was not to be mistreated by the police when they came in," Fontes told local radio network Tiradentes.
"We think they had already done what they wanted: kill members of the rival organisation and get a guarantee that they would not be beaten by the police. The FDN massacred suspected members of the PCC and other rivals."
Authorities have counted 60 bodies so far, all of them inmates, the head of the state's prisons administration, Pedro Florencio, told journalists.
Officials said they were working to determine whether any prisoners had escaped.
It was the latest eruption of horrific violence to hit Brazil's underfunded and overcrowded prisons.
In October, deadly riots broke out at three separate prisons blamed on fighting between members of the country's two largest gangs, the PCC and the Red Command (CV).
During that episode, rioting inmates took visitors hostage, beheaded rivals and burned others alive, authorities said. At least 25 inmates were killed at one prison, in Roraima state.
Brazil's prisons are often under the de facto control of drug gangs, whose turf wars on the outside are also fought out among inmates.
"Fighting between different criminal factions occurs all over Brazil, in every penitentiary," said Florencio.
Some 622,000 people were imprisoned in Brazil as of the end of 2014, most of them black males, according to a justice ministry report.
That makes it the world's fourth-largest prison population, the report said, after the United States, China and Russia.
Human rights groups have long complained about the conditions in Brazilian prisons.
Brazil's prisons need 50 per cent more capacity to handle the current number of inmates, the justice ministry report found.
There were 1.67 prisoners for every available space, it said. In Amazonas state, the figure was 2.59 prisoners for every space.