MEXICO CITY - Suspected gang members in Mexico confessed to killing more than 40 missing students and incinerating their remains in a grisly case that shocked the country and triggered protests, authorities said Friday.
But Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam warned that it would be difficult to identify the charred remains and that authorities will continue to consider the students as missing until DNA tests confirm the identities.
"I am angry, sad and Mexican society is too," said Murillo Karam, who delivered the news in a meeting with relatives of the missing in an airport hangar in Chilpancingo, capital of the violence-plagued southern state of Guerrero.
Authorities have been searching for 43 students since gang-linked police attacked their buses in the southern city of Iguala on September 26, allegedly under orders of the mayor and his wife in violence that left six people dead.
The case has drawn international outrage, brought tens of thousands of people to the streets in protest and turned into a full-blown crisis for President Enrique Pena Nieto.
The three Guerreros Unidos gang suspects said they killed the students after they were handed over to them between Iguala and the neighbouring town of Cocula by police, Murillo Karam said.
The bodies were set on fire near a Cocula landfill with gasoline, tires, firewood and plastic in an inferno that lasted 14 hours, he said.
"The fire lasted from midnight to 2:00 pm the next day. The criminals could not handle the bodies until 5:00 pm due to the heat," he said.
The suspects then crushed the remains, stuffed them in bags and threw some of them in a river.
The suspects were not sure how many students they received but one of them said there were more than 40.
Before the announcement, relatives of the missing said they would not accept that their children were killed until they get the results of independent Argentine forensic experts.
"We will keep pressing that we want them back alive," Manuel Martinez, a spokesman for the families, told AFP.
Murillo Karam said the remains would be analysed by experts at an Austrian university.
Dozens of people have been arrested, including Guerreros Unidos members, 36 Iguala and Cocula police officers and Iguala's ousted mayor, Jose Luis Abarca, and his wife Maria de los Angeles Pineda.
The mayoral couple were detained in a gritty Mexico City district on Tuesday after more than a month on the run.
Authorities say Abarca ordered the officers to confront the students over fears they would derail a speech by his wife, who headed the local child protection agency.
Mexico's 'gravest' case
The missing young men, who are from a left-wing teacher-training college near Guerrero's state capital, said they were going to Iguala to raise funds, though they hijacked four buses to move around.
The crisis forced Pena Nieto to shorten a major upcoming trip to China and Australia by four days, which will now run from November 9 to 15.
Human Rights Watch dubbed the mass disappearance "one of the gravest cases recorded in the contemporary history of Mexico and Latin America." Fed up with a drug war that has killed 80,000 people and left 22,000 more missing since 2006, Mexicans have held a series of protests over the Iguala case.