'Serious Failings' By Russia In Deadly Beslan School Siege, European Court Says

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Russia failed to prevent a 2004 attack on a school and then overreacted by using grenades, tanks and flamethrowers to end a three-day siege that killed more than 330 people, the European Court of Human Rights says, ruling in a case brought by victims of the attack and their families.

The court is ordering Russia to pay the plaintiffs nearly 3 million euros ($3.1 million). Russia's Justice Ministry says it will appeal the ruling. Under the European court's protocols, any party to the case has three months to appeal to the Grand Chamber of the Court.

In the September 2004 attack on a school in Beslan, North Ossetia, heavily armed terrorists held more than 1,000 people prisoner. Most of the hostages were children. The standoff ended in a flurry of explosions, gunfire, and a roof collapse.

More than 180 children died in the incident, and more than 750 people were hurt. The European court ruled in a case brought by 409 Russian nationals who accused the Russian government of a string of failures in its response to the attack.

"The Court could not avoid the conclusion that this lack of responsibility and coordination had contributed, to some extent, to the tragic outcome of the events," the judges say, discussing a lack of formal leadership among officials and agencies in forming a rescue plan.

On Sept. 1, 2004, Beslan School No. 1 was taken over by militants who were demanding freedom for nearby Chechnya. They corralled their hostages into the gymnasium — which they threatened to blow up if an assault was made (see NPR's timeline). On Sept. 3, two strong explosions hit the gym, and a gunfight ensued as desperate hostages tried to escape.

"In the absence of proper legal rules, powerful weapons such as tank cannon, grenade launchers and flame-throwers had been used on the school," the European court says, adding, "This had contributed to the casualties among the hostages" in violation of laws concerning the use of lethal force.

In 2002, a similar attack on a theater in Moscow had resulted in at least 170 deaths, after Russian forces pumped poisonous gas into the building.

Here's a breakdown of problems the court found in the Beslan case:

Before the Attack: "The authorities had been in possession of sufficiently specific information of a planned terrorist attack in the area, linked to an educational institution. Nevertheless, not enough had been done to disrupt the terrorists meeting and preparing; insufficient steps had been taken to prevent them 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."

During the Attack: Russian authorities failed to plan and conduct a rescue operation in a way that would minimize the risk to life, the court says, adding: "There were delays in setting it up and inconsistencies in determining its leadership and composition, and the lack of any records highlights the appearance of a void of formal responsibility."

That failure also extended to a lack of coordination among medical, rescue, and fire-fighting teams.

After the Attack: Investigators "failed to conduct full forensic examinations of the majority of the victims (in order, for example, to identify and match external objects like bullets or shrapnel); and had failed to properly record the location of the vast majority of the hostages' bodies. For one third of the victims, the exact cause of death had not been established."

Investigators also "failed to properly secure and record other evidence before the site was irreparably altered by large machinery and the lifting of the security cordon on the day after the end of the rescue operation."

The official inquiry didn't adequately examine the use of deadly force — and did not determine what weapons had been used, where, and by whom — despite evidence that security forces had used weapons "capable of causing indiscriminate harm to the people inside the building, such as grenade launchers, flame-throwers, and tank cannon."

Officials also repeatedly refused to release expert reports on the use of lethal force, and the cause of the initial explosions that struck the school's gym, the court says.

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