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Mexican soldiers charged in civilian court

Seven soldiers allegedly were involved in deaths of gang members at a rural warehouse in June

Seven Mexican soldiers have been formally charged with crimes ranging from homicide to improper conduct in connection with the shooting deaths of suspected gang members at a rural warehouse on June 30, officials said Sunday.

Authorities initially said that all 22 suspected gang members died in a shootout with soldiers in a confrontation near Tlatlaya, a rural community about 95 miles southwest of Mexico City. On the southern fringes of the state Mexico, which borders Guerrero and Michoacan, Tlatlaya is in an area plagued by gang violence.

But witness statements and evidence from the scene contradicted the official version of events. Authorities later arrested the soldiers but said only three had participated in the killings.

The formal charges come during heightened international awareness of human rights issues in Mexico. The Tlatlaya deaths are just one of several cases, including the disappearance of 43 college students in Guerrero state in late September who remain missing, that have called into question the respect for human rights in Mexico.

All seven soldiers were accused before a civilian judge of "actions improper to the public service" and three face more serious charges including aggravated homicide over the deaths of eight people, according to a statement released Sunday by the Federal Judiciary Council.

The three accused of homicide are Fernando Quintero Millan, Roberto Acevedo Lopez and Leobardo Hernandez Leonides. The other four soldiers were charged with dereliction of duty. It was not immediately clear why the eighth soldier was not charged.

Authorities had said earlier that seven soldiers and a lieutenant were being held in the case, but Sunday's judicial statement only mentioned seven people. The soldiers will remain in a military prison in Mexico City.

Mexico's National Human Rights Commission, which conducted an investigation into the deaths, has said that at least 15 of the 22 people killed that day were executed by soldiers after the confrontation.

The commission also said in its Oct. 21 report that there were attempts by civilian and military authorities to cover up what happened.

Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam said in October that a witness confirmed the official version of events in a declaration, though the woman had journalists earlier in separate interviews that 21 of the victims were killed after surrendering.

The United Nations, the U.S. and the European Union have called on Mexico to conduct an independent investigation into the deaths.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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