By Kazbek Basayev and Andrew Osborn
BESLAN/MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia broke European human rights law by using excessive force to storm a school seized by Islamist militants in 2004, causing a high number of hostages to be killed, the continent's rights court ruled on Thursday.
The Beslan school siege, in which more than 330 hostages lost their lives, including at least 180 children, ended in a chaotic gun battle and was the bloodiest incident of its kind in modern Russian history.
The three-day drama began when Islamist militants took more than 1,000 hostages in the small southern Russian town on the first day of the school year and called for independence for the majority Muslim region of Chechnya.
In the days and months afterwards, survivors accused the authorities of bungling the siege by using tanks, flamethrowers and grenade launchers while hostages were still cowering inside the school gym, and then covering up what happened.
On Thursday, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg agreed with most of those allegations.
In particular, it said the heavy-handed way Russian forces stormed the school had "contributed to the casualties among the hostages" and violated the hostages' right to life enshrined in Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Authorities had failed to take reasonable preventive measures beforehand, the court ruled, despite knowing militants were planning to attack an educational institution.
They had also contributed "to some extent" to the tragic outcome, the court said, by not putting in place a proper command structure, a shortcoming it said led to a flawed rescue operation that did not minimise risks to the hostages.
It ordered Russia to pay 2.955 million euros (£2.50 million) in damages and 88,000 euros in legal costs.
MOSCOW TO APPEAL
The Russian government said it would appeal the ruling.
"In a country that has been a victim of terrorist attacks multiple times, we cannot agree with such a conclusion," said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, calling the ruling "unacceptable."
Russia's justice ministry said many of the court's findings were "unfounded" and complained evidence it had presented had been either ignored or misunderstood.
Ella Kesayeva, who lost two of her nephews and her brother-in-law in the siege, said she was disappointed that the court had come up with what she said was a low compensation figure.
"It seems that a life is not worth anything," she told Reuters in Beslan, saying a larger amount would have brought home the seriousness of what had happened and encourage the state to bring guilty officials to justice.
Emma Tagayeva, who lost her husband and both sons in the attack, said the ruling had brought some "moral satisfaction" but that she and other relatives would continue their fight for justice. "Impunity begets impunity," she said.
Elena Milashina, a campaigning journalist, posted a photograph from Beslan on social media showing some of the mothers of the victims standing around a long table laden with food and drink celebrating the court's ruling.
"Everything was not in vain," wrote Milashina. "We won."
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(Additional reporting by Svetlana Reiter and Christian Lowe in Moscow, Robert-Jan Bartunek in Brussels and Gilbert Reilhac in Strasbourg; Editing by Tom Heneghan)