By Lizbeth Diaz
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - The head of the Mexican army will not permit international experts to interrogate his troops over allegations they may have been involved in the apparent massacre of 43 students last year, and rejects any suggestion they may have been involved.
Salvador Cienfuegos, who is also Mexico's defense minister, told local television late on Monday that none of his troops took part in the attack on the trainee teachers in the southwestern city of Iguala in September last year.
The incident shocked the world and created a serious political storm for Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto.
In the months after the incident, the government sought to wrap up its investigation, saying a corrupt cadre of local police, in cahoots with a drug gang, confused the students for a rival gang. The government says they rounded them up and burned them on a pyre in the nearby town of Cocula.
However, a panel of respected international investigators last month rejected the official account, pointing to suspicions of forced confessions and possible collusion by federal and state security forces, including the army.
"I can't permit them to interrogate my soldiers, who at this point haven't committed a single crime," Cienfuegos said.
He denied his troops were involved and said nearly 50 of his soldiers had already been interviewed by the attorney general's office, some up to four times.
He also said investigators from the attorney general's office, as well as members of Mexico's human rights commission, had inspected the barracks in Iguala, without finding any evidence to support the army's involvement.
The international panel of experts had no legal grounds to interrogate Mexican soldiers, he said, as the army is only beholden to Mexican criminal investigative agencies.
The army has been a central pillar of Mexico's long-running war against drug gangs. Well over 100,000 people have been killed since former President Felipe Calderon sent in troops to defeat the gangs in 2007. But the military has also been accused of various rights abuses.
Three army soldiers remain behind bars accused of murdering 22 gang members last year in a separate incident, although four were released on Monday.
(Writing by Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Dave Graham and Cynthia Osterman)