Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov denied on Wednesday that any homosexuals have been arrested in his Russian Caucasus republic, dismissing media reports about alleged abuse of gays.
"Provocative articles about Chechnya (have) reported so-called arrests," Kadyrov said in an exchange with Russian President Putin, cited by Russian news agencies.
"It's even embarrassing to talk about it. It's said there have been what are called arrests, murders, (newspapers) have even given the name" of one victim, he said. "But he is alive, in good health and is at home," he added.
The newspaper said local authorities urged the families of those arrested to kill them to "clear their honour".
After two separatist wars in the 1990s, the predominantly Muslim Russian republic became increasingly conservative under the late president Akhmat Kadyrov and then his son Ramzan, who was appointed by Vladimir Putin in 2007.
Novaya Gazeta claimed that police in the Russian republic have rounded up more than 100 men suspected of homosexuality, leaving at least three dead.
According to a statement released by the paper, 15,000 people attended a meeting in the Chechen capital, Grozny, adopting a resolution vowing “retribution” against the “true instigators” of the story.
The paper claimed that Adam Shakhidov, an adviser to Kadyrov, accused its staff of libel at the meeting and described them as “enemies of our faith and our homeland”.
Gay Chechens who have fled to Moscow have told AFP of having been beaten and detained "in an unofficial prison", and said they now lived in fear of being identified and tracked down by their families.
When originally confronted with the allegations, Kadyrov's spokesman Alvi Karimov said it was not possible that gays had suffered abuse because homosexuals "don't exist" in Chechnya.
"You cannot arrest or repress people who just don’t exist in the republic," said Karimov.
"If such people existed in Chechnya, law enforcement would not have to worry about them since their own relatives would have sent them to where they could never return."
The Novaya Gazeta report sparked outrage abroad, including from the US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley who said on Monday she was "disturbed by reports of kidnapping, torture, and murder of people in Chechnya based on their sexual orientation".
The UN's high commissioner for human rights last week called on the Russian government "to put an end to the persecution of people perceived to be gay or bisexual ... who are living in a climate of fear fuelled by homophobic speeches by local authorities."
Prosecutors launched a formal investigation on Monday. But investigators said they had as yet received "no official complaint" from a victim, according to the Russian human rights ombudswoman Tatyana Moskalkova.
In 2013, Russia introduced a controversial "gay propaganda" law which banned the promotion of homosexuality to minors. The move was widely criticised as state-sponsored homophobia.
At the time, Mr Putin said the law was not an attack on homosexuality, which is legal in Russia, but an attempt to protect children.