On April 13 the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that the Russian authorities had violated the European Convention on Human Rights during the September 2004 Beslan school hostage crisis, which resulted in the deaths of 334 civilians, 186 of them children.
According to the ECHR ruling, the authorities violated Article 2 of the Convention - the right to life - by failing to act on specific intelligence to prevent the seizure of the school by militants, their inept handling of the response, and, most importantly, their use of heavy weaponry during the final assault on the school.
In response, the Russian Ministry of Justice claimed that the ECHR’s ruling on the use of heavy weapons was “absolutely groundless.”
“The baselessness of such conclusions is confirmed by the results of the careful work of our investigative agencies, which reliably established the absence of any casualties as a result of the use of weapons by the security services.
The Russian authorities have exhaustively explained to the European Court all of the circumstances, the types and periods of the use of firearms and military hardware during the rescue operation. That the court has not taken account of the relevant, detailed information in their consideration of the case is regrettable.”
The ECHR had described the use of several types of heavy weaponry during the hostage crisis, including T-72 tanks, rocket-propelled grenades and, most importantly, RPO-A Shmel missiles.
While the Russian authorities had initially denied the use of RPO-A missiles during the hostage crisis, Deputy Prosecutor-General Nikolai Shepel admitted in July, 2005, that Russian special forces had fired RPO-A Shmel rockets into the school.
The RPO-A Shmel is a shoulder-launched, thermobaric missile, often misleadingly described as a flamethrower. It spreads a mist of fuel on impact, before igniting the mix with the surrounding air used as an oxidizer. The result is an explosion with an extremely powerful blast wave that burns up all available oxygen in an enclosed space.
According to the ECHR report, between 12 and 17 RPO-A missiles were fired at the school, in addition to around 40 smaller LPO-97 thermobaric grenades. More conventional weaponry used by the Russian security services included 28 rocket-propelled grenades, eight tank shells, ten hand grenades and at least 7,000 rounds of assault rifle and machine gun ammunition.
As the ECHR noted, the Russian Federal Forensic Center produced a report in December, 2005, which included testimony from army and Federal Security Service (FSB), who had said that at least five RPO-A missiles had been fired during the operation.
The Russian report had concluded that although the RPO-A missiles had indeed been used, they were directed at areas of the school where only militants were present, and their blasts were not capable of setting the building on fire.
In light of the extremely powerful effects of the thermobaric warheads used, and the failure of Russian officials to properly assess the cause of death of at least a third of the victims (partly as a result of the fact that the contents of the buildings, including many body parts, were simply bulldozed and taken to garbage dump the day after the storming), the ECHR ruled that this argument was not tenable.
Justin Bronk, a research fellow with the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), explained to Polygraph.info:
“Whilst thermobaric weapons such as the RPO-A and LPO-97 have only a limited and localized incendiary effect, they mainly kill via blast overpressure which can be lethal a fair distance from the visible blast in confined spaces (which channel and magnify the shockwave).”
Nor is the ECHR’s the only report to reach this conclusion. An independent 2006 report by Yuri Savelyev, an explosives expert, then a member of parliament and a member of the official Beslan Inquiry Commission, placed the blame for a significant proportion of the casualties on the Russian security forces. In particular, due to their use of thermobaric weaponry.
Back in 2005, arms expert Alexander Pashin told The Moscow Times that “any type of explosive could create a fire.” Alexander Cherkasov, a senior member of the Memorial human rights organization, also commented that the shock wave from RPO-A strikes could just as easily have caused the collapse of the roof of the school, leaving many of the hostages trapped in the inferno.
It is baffling therefore for the Ministry of Justice to say that the ECHR made baseless accusations in describing the use of heavy, thermobaric weapons against the school while hostages were still inside.
As RUSI’s Justin Bronk concluded:
“When used against structures with innocents and terrorists intermingled, they are almost by necessity indiscriminate and unsafe weapons.”