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Russian investigator denies threatening reporter

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MOSCOW — Russia's top investigator denied Thursday that he threatened to kill an investigative reporter over a story that lambasted his agency.

Novaya Gazeta, Russia's leading investigative publication, claimed Wednesday that Investigative Committee chief Gen. Col. Alexander Bastrykin took reporter Sergei Sokolov to a forest outside Moscow where he threatened to kill him and then joked that he would lead the investigation into his death.

The alleged June 4 incident followed Sokolov's story that accused Bastrykin's agency of failing to punish the perpetrator of a 2010 killing of 12 people, including four children, by a gang in southern Russia.

Bastrykin told the Izvestia daily Thursday he had invited the journalist to meet the team that investigated the 2010 killings — and then had a "very emotional conversation" with him. But the conversation did not take place in a forest, he insisted.

"My job keeps me too busy for picnicking," Bastrykin was quoted as saying.

Sokolov has left Russia following the threat, but his whereabouts are unknown. In a series of earlier reports on the 2010 killing, Sokolov claimed that the gang whose members have been accused of murders, rapes, assaults and blackmail, used its ties to authorities, lawmakers and investigators to avoid persecution and influence investigation.

"Novaya Gazeta acted mean and ugly by accusing the Investigative Committee," Bastrykin was quoted as saying. "Of course, there was a lot of noise. But the whole story is not worth a lick."

The Novaya Gazeta's relentless criticism of the Kremlin and investigations into official corruption has put many of its journalists under fire. Four of its reporters have been killed since 2000, including Anna Politkovskaya, a fierce critic of the Kremlin and its policies in Chechnya who was gunned down in 2006. Others have been harassed and attacked.

Founded in 1993, the paper is published three times a week and has a circulation of about 200,000. Russian media tycoon Alexander Lebedev and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev own a 49 percent stake, while the remaining shares are controlled by Novaya's staffers.

Since 2000, at least 16 journalists have been killed in Russia, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. The slain journalists were critical of the government, law enforcement agencies, businesses or criminal groups, and most of the killings remain unsolved.