At least 16 prisoners died in a prison riot in the western state of Zulia, the Cabinet minister in charge of Venezuela's penitentiaries said Tuesday.

"Fifteen people died .... There is one person, number 16, who also died but in another area not involved in the internal war that there was ... at that time, but also the product of violence," Iris Varela told reporters at an official event broadcast by state television.

An exchange of gunfire began around 6 p.m. Monday among several inmate gangs trying to take control of the prison, according to media accounts.

Varela, however, said that the prisoners had no intention of fighting for control of the facility, adding that the Attorney General's Office will launch an investigation into the incident.

The participants in the riot "of course" have been fully identified, she said.

The minister said that in the coming hours she will travel to Zulia to announce from there "the decision that is to be made as a result of those acts of ... violence."

The prison is under the control of the police and national guard troops, the entrances to the facility were shut and visits by relatives and others suspended, media outlets said.

The Venezuelan penitentiary system is in the midst of a chronic crisis due to overcrowding and the entry of weapons and drugs into the country's prisons.

The independent Observatorio Venezolano de Prisiones, or OVP, said that during the first six months of this year 289 prisoners lost their lives in the country's jails, which house 52,933 inmates despite having a capacity of just 16,539.

At least 591 prisoners died and another 1,132 were injured in 2012 as a result of violence in Venezuela's prisons, according to the OVP. EFE