Gay men are disappearing in Chechnya, according to a human rights activist and a leading opposition newspaper in Russia. Some are being detained; the fate of others is unknown, human rights groups say.
The newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, reported at the weekend that the men were detained "in connection with their non-traditional sexual orientation, or suspicion of such," citing Russian federal law enforcement officials.
Novaya Gazeta reported that more than 100 gay men had been detained in the last two weeks and said it had the names of three who had been murdered.
CNN has not been able to independently confirm the newspaper's reporting. But Ekaterina Sokirianskaia, Russia project director of the International Crisis Group, told CNN that in the last 10 days she had received information from multiple sources in Chechnya about the detention of gay men, including a hairdresser as well as cultural and religious figures.
Sokirianskaia, a Moscow-based expert on the Caucasus region that includes the Russian republic of Chechnya, said the volume of information made it "almost impossible to believe this is not happening, but it is also very difficult to verify because Chechen society is extremely homophobic."
She said it was unclear what had triggered the apparent anti-gay campaign.
'An April Fool's joke'
Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told CNN on Monday that the reports were "a question for law enforcement -- it's not on the Kremlin's agenda."
"We don't know how much of it is true," Peskov added. "I'm not an expert in the field of non-traditional sexual orientation."
He said the Interior Ministry would investigate the report.
The response from Chechnya -- an almost entirely Muslim republic, which includes part of Russia's border with Georgia -- was very different. The press secretary of the republic's Interior Ministry, Magomed Deniev, told Russian media that the report "is probably an April Fool's joke."
A spokesman for the Chechen government, Alvi Karimov, told the Russian news agency Interfax that the story in Novaya Gazeta was "an absolute lie."
But Karimov's fuller explanation underlined the deeply conservative and intolerant views of the republic's leadership.
"You can't detain and harass someone who doesn't exist in the republic," he said.
"If there were such people in the Chechen republic, law enforcement wouldn't have a problem with them because their relatives would send them to a place of no return."
Karimov appears to have been talking about so-called "honor killings" or the murders of people who offended social conventions by their own families.
'Climate of fear'
Sokirianskaia at the International Crisis Group said honor killings still happened in Chechnya, and gay men would get no protection from their families, who would see them as a source of shame.
But she said some gay men had left Chechnya and were now beginning to tell their stories to gay rights groups.
She said there was no gay 'community' as such in Chechnya. Small groups would connect by phone but ran the risk of discovery because of the monitoring of calls by the Chechen security services.
Gay individuals lived, Sokirianskaia said, in a climate of fear, paranoid about being discovered.
Even human rights officials in Chechnya are unsympathetic on LGBT issues. Heda Saratova, head of the Human Rights Council in Chechnya, dismissed the article in Novaya Gazeta as "spitting into our face, our traditions, our customs."
Saratova told CNN by phone that "even if people with non-traditional sexual orientation are present in our society, no one would ever know about this. They [gay rights groups] say that they want to hold gay parades here, this is just absurd."
Ramzan Kadyrov, leader of Chechnya since 2004, has stifled any form of dissent, subduing the separatist movement that fought the Russian army for nearly two decades.
In 2009, Kadyrov said in a newspaper interview that "Prostitution, drugs and gays are the poison of our time. How can Russia support gay clubs?"
"There is a whole system aimed at weakening the country, the will, honor, and spirit," Kadyrov said of what he considered vices.
He has also spoken favorably of polygamy.
Kadyrov posts social media videos of himself working out and offered to raise a volunteer force to send to Syria to fight on behalf of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
LGBT groups across Russia say they are frequently discriminated against, and several of their rallies have been attacked and broken up.
In 2013, Putin signed a law that barred public discussion of gay rights and relationships anywhere that children might hear it. The law has been condemned by Russian and international rights groups.
Human Rights Watch described the anti-gay propaganda law as "a profoundly discriminatory and dangerous bill that is bound to worsen homophobia in Russia."