Europe's rights court faults Russia over storming of besieged school

Russia's response to the 2004 Beslan school siege had "serious failings" and breached human rights laws, one of Europe's top courts has said.

"Unfortunately the list of such countries is growing and is unfortunately growing regularly, so such conclusions for a country that endured an attack are absolutely unacceptable".

In the siege, Chechen separatists took more than 1,000 hostages, the vast majority of them children.

"The authorities had been in possession of sufficiently specific information of a planned terrorist attack in the area, linked to an educational institution", it said.

The court ruled Russia violated Article 2 because it could not determine whether Russian security forces were justified in the amount of force they used in the intervention, which witnesses said was excessive.

Russian special forces stormed the building in a blaze of gunfire after 52 hours, and 334 people, including 186 children, were killed in the hail of bullets, explosions and fire that followed.

The Russian government will appeal the ruling, which spokesman Dmitry Peskov said was "utterly unacceptable".

Russian and worldwide experts describe Beslan as a political shock for Russia comparable to the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States and say it marked a turning point for the Kremlin's policy in the Caucasus.

A further 750 people were wounded when security forces, which the court said used "tank cannon, grenade launchers and flamethrowers", moved in to free more than 1,000 hostages at Beslan.

The attack began on the first day of the school year.

It criticised the authorities for being unable to prevent the militants from meeting and travelling on the day of the attack, and failing to increase security at the school or warn the public of the threat.

The court ordered Russian Federation to pay €2.955 million in damages and €88,000 in legal costs.

The hostages were crammed into their school sports hall beneath explosives strung from the basketball hoops.

During the siege, militants had demanded that Moscow withdraw its troops from Chechnya, and the massacre was among a number of brutal attacks Russian Federation suffered during an insurgency in its predominantly Muslim southern republic.

But many mothers of those killed have long argued that officials should have done more to save their children.

  • Carolyn Briggs