By Gilbert Reilhac and Svetlana Reiter
STRASBOURG/MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian authorities breached European human rights laws when they stormed a school seized by Islamist militants in 2004, contributing to the deaths of more than 300 hostages, the continent's rights court ruled on Thursday.
Among the more than 330 dead were at least 180 children. A further 750 people were wounded when security forces used "tank cannon, grenade launchers and flamethrowers" while trying to free more than 1,000 hostages at the school in the southern Russian town of Beslan.
This, said the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, "contributed to the casualties among the hostages" and did not respect the hostages' "right to life" by failing to restrict lethal force to what was "absolutely necessary".
The court ordered Russia to pay 2.955 million euros ($3.14 million) in damages and 88,000 euros in legal costs.
The court also said Russian authorities had been aware of a possible attack on public places such as schools but had not prepared sufficiently. "While certain security measures had been taken, in general the preventive measures in the present case could be characterised as inadequate," it said.
Russia's government said it would appeal against the ruling. "We cannot agree with such a conclusion in a country that has been a victim of terrorist attacks multiple times," said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
"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," Peskov said.
A lawyer who represented victims of the siege and their families said they had only achieved a partial victory, and the focus would now be on trying to hold to account Russian officials over their failings.
"We are not entirely happy with the decision," said Sergei Knyazkin, a lawyer for campaign group the Beslan Mothers Committee. "Three million euros in compensation is not enough, because you cannot measure the death of children in such figures."
"The victims insist that the authorities carry the blame for the badly-conducted operation to free the hostages in Beslan," Knyazkin told Reuters.
Militants demanding the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya seized some 1,100 children, parents and teachers as they celebrated the first day of the school year in September 2004. On Sept. 3 the siege ended in a series of explosions and a bloody shootout when Russian forces moved in.
($1 = 0.9398 euros)
(Additional reporting by Robert-Jan Bartunek in Brussels and Christian Lowe in Moscow; Editing by Mark Trevelyan/Andrew Osborn)