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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 October 2018

Venezuela nightclub stampede leaves 17 dead

A tear gas device exploded after a brawl broke out at the club in Caracas

Relatives of victims of the El Paraiso nightclub stampede in Caracas wait for further news of the investigation, at the headquarters of the Scientific Police. Cristian Hernandez / EPA
Relatives of victims of the El Paraiso nightclub stampede in Caracas wait for further news of the investigation, at the headquarters of the Scientific Police. Cristian Hernandez / EPA

Seventeen people were killed during a graduation celebration at a nightclub in Caracas, Venezuela, on Saturday after a tear gas device exploded during a brawl, triggering a desperate stampede among hundreds of people, government officials said.

Interior Minister Nestor Reverol said eight minors were among the dead at the "Los Cotorros" club in the middle-class neighbourhood of El Paraiso. Eight people were detained, including two teenagers believed to have set off the tear gas canister.

"The establishment has been ordered closed, and we are investigating in coordination with the public ministry, which is directing the criminal investigation," he said.

Family members wept and embraced one another after identifying the remains of their loved ones in hospital. Outside the club, several mismatched shoes, including a sandal with a puckered red lip decoration, lay on the sidewalk.

"All I know is my son is dead," Nilson Guerra, 43, told local journalists.

More than 500 people were believed to be inside the club when the fight broke out. Julio Cesar Perdomo said his injured son told him the tear gas was launched from inside a bathroom and that partygoers tried to flee but found the club's door closed. Pictures posted by Reverol on Twitter show a narrow tiled staircase leading to a metal door.

"The kids couldn't leave," Mr Perdomo said.

Officials did not provide any information to confirm or deny Mr Perdomo's account.

The club is officially called "El Paraiso" or "Paradise" but is more widely known as "Los Cotorros" or "The Chatterboxes". Photos shared online from previous celebrations at the club show a dark interior with wooden tables and a stage upfront where DJs play. Green painted metal bars and gates covered the doors and windows.

Outside, a faded sign on the red brick building read "We've opened!"

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Jesus Armas, an opposition councillor who lives in the neighbourhood, said the Interior Ministry should explain how a civilian was able to obtain tear gas canisters that should only be utilised by state security forces. He also urged authorities to investigate whether the club had permission to hold several hundred people inside.

"That's not a big space and that should not be authorised," he said.

He added that other violent incidents had taken place inside the club, which is frequently used by the Ecuadorean community for parties and political events. Several campaign signs for Ecuadorean politicians were hung outside.

Police have detained the club owner for "not guaranteeing adequate supervision and preventing the entry of any type of weapon". No information on the owner's name, charges or whereabouts was provided.

Caracas is one of the most violent capitals in the world and the country is engulfed in a deepening economic crisis that has forced hundreds of thousands to flee. The Venezuelan Observatory of Violence estimates about 26,600 people were killed in 2017. InSight Crime, a group that studies organised crime in South America, characterised Venezuela as the "most homicidal country in the region", with a rate of 89 violent deaths per 100,000 residents.

Haide Berrio, the aunt of a 17-year-old boy killed in the stampede, told media she went running out to find her nephew in the middle of the night after hearing about the commotion and knowing that he was attending the party.

Relatives of the boy found him among the dead and said he was killed by asphyxia.

The grieving aunt said the family wants the club to be closed permanently and the owner to be held responsible.

"I am asking for justice," she said.