Caracas - Shots rang out and smoke rose over a Caracas jail on Thursday in the latest outbreak of violence in one of Venezuela's notoriously violent and overcrowded jails.

Authorities are trying to close the chaotic La Planta facility, built in 1964 to house 350 inmates, which now houses nearly 2 500, many armed with heavy weapons.

Prisoners have, however, been resisting closure for weeks, leading to a virtual siege with security forces ringing the jail. Wailing relatives are also camped outside.

“The police haven't told us anything. This is war,” said Esperanza Jimenez, crying as she spoke of her 29-year-old son inside the jail.

“God bless Chavez,” she added sarcastically.

President Hugo Chavez's government says a dialogue is under way with prisoners about their transfer. He accuses opposition media of exaggerating and fanning the situation.

Critics of the socialist president counter that his government has neglected the prison issue, especially during Chavez's absence from public life for cancer treatment.

“The situation in La Planta is another example of this government's failures on the issues of prisons and Venezuelans' security,” said opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who is running against Chavez in an October election.

The situation at La Planta was reminiscent of a siege last year when 5 000 soldiers took a month to quell violence in another overcrowded prison where riots killed 22 people.

Relatives outside La Planta jail spoke of injuries and deaths inside during Thursday’s flareup, but Reuters reporters on the scene could not independently confirm that. - Reuters