STRASBOURG (France) • The European Court of Human Rights ruled yesterday that there were "serious failings" in Russia's handling of the Beslan school siege by Chechen rebels in 2004, in which over 330 people were killed, many of them children.
The court said that although the Russian authorities had information that an attack was being planned on a school in North Ossetia, they failed to do enough to disrupt the plot and had not sufficiently protected the hostages.
Russia reacted furiously to the judgment, saying it was "absolutely unacceptable".
The school was stormed on Sept 1, 2004 by militants demanding the withdrawal of Russian troops from the war-torn republic of Chechnya.
The attackers herded 1,100 people, including 800 children, into a gymnasium and rigged the building with explosives.
After three days of fruitless negotiations, explosions in the school prompted Russian security forces to storm the gymnasium.
A total of 184 children were among the 334 dead as the siege came to a bloody end.
The Russian authorities argue that they took the best course of action, faced with armed extremists, but many of the survivors and their relatives believe the security services were to blame for the firefight.
The case was brought to the Strasbourg-based court by more than 400 Russians either involved in the incident, or whose relatives were taken hostage or killed.
The judges found that "insufficient steps had been taken to prevent (the attackers from) travelling on the day of the attack; security at the school had not been increased; and neither the school nor the public had been warned of the threat".
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia found it "impossible" to agree with the wording of the judgment.
"Such phrasing for a country that has suffered an attack is absolutely unacceptable," he told journalists.
The court found that through its actions, the Russian state had violated Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees a right to life.
There was an additional violation in the use of "lethal force by security forces".
"In the absence of proper legal rules, powerful weapons such as tank cannon, grenade launchers and flame-throwers had been used on the school", which had contributed to the casualties among the hostages, the court said.
The judges also said there were "serious shortcomings" in the investigation into the attack, especially that there had been "no proper examination of how the victims had died".
The claimants in the case say the authorities were primarily seeking to eliminate the attackers with little care taken to avoid deaths of hostages.
Russian and international experts describe Beslan as a political shock for Russia comparable to the Sept 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, and say it marked a turning point in the Kremlin's policy in the Caucasus.