BOGOTA, Colombia - At least 26 inmates died in fierce fighting between rival gangs that ended early today in a Bogota penitentiary where prisoners signed a nonviolence pact just two months ago, authorities said.
The clash between paramilitary fighters and common criminals inside Modelo prison appeared to be the most serious bloodletting ever in Colombia's notoriously violent and overcrowded penitentiary system.
The killing began Thursday after a missing inmate's body was found chopped to pieces in a garbage bag inside a sewer pipe, said police operations director Gen. Alfonso Arellano.
The gruesome find set tempers flaring and led to retaliation killings that tapered off early today between jailed rightist militia members and inmates in another cellblock housing murderers, armed robbers and kidnappers.
Authorities had considered a police raid on the jail but ultimately convinced gang leaders to lay down their weapons, Arellano said. Several were transferred to other prisons.
Some of the dead were shot in the head at close range, the general added. Officials confiscated guns, grenades and caches of ammunition.
Modelo prison, an aging and overcrowded facility where violence is common, was the site of a rare ''peace pact'' signed Feb. 29 between jailed paramilitary fighters and rival leftist rebels who live in separate cell blocks.
Arellano said the rebels were not involved in the melee.
Inmates hold sway over fearful and outgunned guards throughout the South American country's crumbling and corrupt prison system. Guns and knives, and even hand grenades, are easy to smuggle in.