MOSCOW (AP) – Dressed in black, mothers of children killed in the Beslan school seizure a year ago took their grievances Friday to President Vladimir Putin, who promised a thorough investigation but said no government can guarantee its people protection from terrorism.

The relatives, who have complained bitterly about the investigation and demanded officials be prosecuted in connection with the attack, flew to Moscow on the second day of a mourning period on the anniversary of the three-day ordeal.

Susanna Dudiyeva, the head of the Beslan Mothers’ Committee, said the meeting was “difficult and harsh,” but called it “an important step forward for grieving relatives.”

Speaking to reporters after returning to Beslan from Moscow, Dudiyeva said the relatives asked hard questions during the 2 3/4-hour meeting, many of which Putin answered “openly.”

Still, she said the group held Putin personally responsible for last year’s hostage seizure, which left more than 330 people dead.

“We said what we wanted to say, we asked what we wanted to ask,” another participant, Anneta Gadiyeva, told The Associated Press. She said she hoped it would bring “progressive results.”

With emotions high amid anger at his government’s handling of the attack and its aftermath, Putin acknowledged what the Beslan raid and other attacks have made devastatingly clear – that his government cannot provide complete protection from terrorism.

“I agree with those who believe that the state is not in condition to provide for the security of its citizens to the necessary degree,” Putin said in comments broadcast on state-run television. But he said that was “no excuse for officials’ improper fulfillment of their duties.”

In an apparent effort to deflect blame from his administration, however, Putin stressed that no government can fully protect its people against terrorism. He referred to bombings in Spain and Britain and to the Sept. 11 attacks, saying U.S. authorities “slipped up and allowed this horrible terrorist act.”

He also suggested Russia’s previous leaders share responsibility, saying the post-Soviet upheaval badly compromised its security and the first war in Chechnya in the mid-1990s – years before he took office – had left the military and security services in a “knockout, half-destroyed condition.”

The Beslan Mothers’ Committee had long demanded to meet with Putin to air its protest over the government’s handling of the tragedy – both the botched rescue operation and the subsequent investigation.

When the invitation for a meeting with Putin finally came late last week, many relatives were angry the president had chosen the first anniversary of the siege for what they suspected was more a political gesture than an attempt to hear their grievances.

Putin tried to assure the group he had been kept fully apprised of their grievances.

“Your feelings are understood by any mother, any father, any normal person,” he said. “I know it all, I have been briefed about the problems and worries that concern you.”

“All the circumstances of this matter must be investigated thoroughly, and you and all Russian society must be informed,” he said.

Militants attacked School No. 1 in the southern Russian town of Beslan on Sept. 1, 2004 – the first day of school – taking more than 1,100 children, parents and staff hostage and herding them into the school gymnasium, which they rigged with explosives. Most of the victims died in the firestorm of explosions and gunfire that brought the crisis to a bloody end two days later.

At School No. 1, eight women held an all-night vigil Thursday night in he gutted gymnasium. Another group spent the night in the cemetery, where the rows of graves tell of Beslan’s loss.

Mourners filed through the school Friday, lighting and placing candles along walls hung with victims’ portraits. In the middle of the hall, where gaping holes in the roof let through the morning sun, was a makeshift shrine of red and white carnations, bottles of water – symbolizing the terrible thirst of the hostages, whom their captors refused any water – and stuffed animals.

“My blood! They stole my blood from me,” one grieving mother shrieked as others tried to console her.

In Moscow, about 200 people took part in a demonstration organized by rights and opposition groups, chanting “Shame!” and holding posters and banners with slogans including, “The authorities are destroying hostages instead of terrorists,” and “It’s frightening to live under such a president.”

They called for the resignation of Putin’s top police and security officials.

The Kremlin critics were apparently hoping to counter rallies Saturday by a pro-Putin youth group, Nashi, that says the Beslan tragedy should be commemorated silently and is holding its demonstrations under the slogan: “Without words.”

Critics and victims’ relatives say the call for silence is to avoid airing questions about how the attack was allowed to occur and what happened during its bloody climax.

“The people who are personally guilty have not been punished – the authorities who let this happen,” Alexei Leontyev, a 22-year-old linguistics student, said at the rally Friday.

Associated Press Writer Mike Eckel contributed to this report from Beslan, Russia.

AP-ES-09-02-05 1634EDT

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