By Andrew Osborn
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia's most famous campaigning newspaper said on Friday it had appealed to the Kremlin to protect its staff after Chechen clerics said the paper faced "retribution" for alleging that gay men in Chechnya were being tortured and killed.
Novaya Gazeta published an article this month which said authorities in the majority Muslim southern Russian republic had rounded up over 100 gay men or men suspected of being gay and tortured them. It said at least three of them had been killed.
Kremlin critics saw the report as further evidence that Moscow allows authorities in Chechnya to run the region - which has been consumed by two wars since the Soviet collapse - as a feudal fiefdom in exchange for separatist and radical Islamist sentiment being brutally suppressed.
Chechnya's Moscow-backed president Ramzan Kadyrov denies allegations human rights are routinely flouted. His spokesman Alvi Karimov called Novaya's report "an absolute lie", saying there were no gay men in Chechnya to be persecuted.
"Nobody can detain or harass anyone who is simply not present in the republic," Karimov told the Interfax news agency.
Novaya's report also caused outrage among Chechnya's Muslim clerics, who adopted a resolution saying it had insulted the dignity and Islamic faith of Chechen men and society.
"We promise that retribution will catch up with the hate-mongers wherever and whoever they are and with no statute of limitations," the resolution read.
Dmitry Muratov, Novaya's editor, said on Friday that the resolution was an incitement to violence and that he was worried about his staff's safety.
"This resolution is encouraging religious fanatics to retaliate against our journalists," he said in a statement, calling on the authorities to protect journalists and stop anyone whipping up hatred against them.
Two of Novaya's reporters specializing in Chechnya - Anna Politkovskaya and Natalya Estermirova - have been murdered in the last decade. Neither case has been fully solved.
Set up with financial help from ex-Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev in 1993, Novaya Gazeta is well-known in Russia for its investigations into official corruption, its reporting on Chechnya, criticism of the authorities and coverage of the opposition in a media landscape where most big-circulation newspapers are loyal to the Kremlin.
The Kremlin said it was following the situation closely and that anyone who thought Novaya's report was false should contest it through the courts.
"We are against any actions that could pose a threat to the safety or lives of journalists," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
Peskov said that reports about gay men being tortured in Chechnya could not be regarded as reliable at this stage however, and that the Kremlin was not aware of the police receiving any complaints on the subject.
Novaya said Russian investigators had so far ignored a request it sent to the authorities to investigate the contents of its report.
(Additional reporting by Denis Pinchuk; Editing by Hugh Lawson)