A devastating fire has swept through a Honduran jail, killing at least 357 prisoners.

According to officials, many of the victims suffocated or were burned to death in the blaze that began late on Tuesday night at the prison in Comayagua, about 75 kilometers (45 miles) north of the capital Tegucigalpa.

The incident has been described as one of the worst prison fires ever in Latin America.

Speaking to the Associated Press, Comayagua firefighters' spokesman Josue Garcia described hellish scenes inside the prison, with many of the inmate's bodies burned beyond recognition.

We couldn't get them out because we didn't have the keys and couldn't find the guards who had them, he said.

As news of the blaze spread, crowds of anxious relatives gathered outside the prison gates desperate for information.

I am looking for my brother, we don't know what's happened to him and they won't let us in, Arlen Gomez told local radio.

Local firemen said they were prevented from entering the prison due to gunshots. But Daniel Orellana, head of the prison system, said there was no riot.

We have two hypotheses, one is that a prisoner set fire to a mattress and the other one is that there was a short circuit in the electrical system, he said.

Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world, according to the United Nations, and there are frequent riots and clashes between members of rival street gangs in its overcrowded prisons.

Across the country jails are often filled double to their capacity, with around 800 inmates crammed into the Comayagua prison alone.

The country is also plagued by violent gangs known as 'maras', which started in the United States and then spread down into Central America, with members covered in distinctive tattoos.

This latest incident follows a similar fire in the textile manufacturing town of San Pedro Sula several years ago, where 100 prisoners were killed.