Russian President Vladimir Putin has backed an inquiry into a reported crackdown on gay people in the republic of Chechnya, in the North Caucasus.
He said he would personally ask the prosecutor general and the interior minister to check the reports.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel this week urged the Russian authorities to help protect gay rights.
Chechen officials have denied gay people even exist in the republic, amid reports of arrests and torture.
On Friday, Mr Putin said he would personally ask the prosecutor general and interior minister to help Kremlin rights ombudswoman Tatyana Moskalkova check the reported abuse.
During a meeting with Ms Moskalkova, the president referred to the reports as “rumours, you could say, about what is happening in our North Caucasus with people of non-traditional orientation”, using a euphemism for gay people.
He was responding to the ombudswoman’s request to set up a “working group” somewhere in Russia, but not in Chechnya, to “take complaints from citizens” on the reported abuse.
Chechnya’s strongman leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, said on Friday he was ready to co-operate with the federal authorities on the issue.
But Mr Kadyrov again insisted there were no “people of non-traditional orientation” in the predominantly Muslim republic, part of the Russian Federation.
‘It’s the extermination of gay men’
Just a few weeks ago, “Ruslan” was with his wife and children in Chechnya. Now he’s in a safe house for men fleeing detention and torture for being gay.
Reports of a campaign against gay men by Chechen security forces have been trickling through since early April when they first appeared in a Russian newspaper. Now some of the alleged victims are starting to speak out.
“When they brought me in, I denied everything,” says Ruslan – not his real name. Even now, he is frightened of being identified.
Homophobia is widespread in Chechnya. Last month, Natalia Poplevskaya of the Russian LGBT Network said there was “an organised campaign to detain gay men” in Chechnya.
Victims of the crackdown – who were either gay or just perceived to be gay – were being held at a detention centre near Argun, 20km (13 miles) from the city of Grozny, she said.
“Torture is going on with electric shocks, beatings with cables,” she told the BBC, adding that three deaths had been reported. “All the people arrested are homosexual men or perceived as being gay.”
A Chechen government spokesman, Alvi Karimov, denied the allegations. “You can’t detain and repress people who simply don’t exist in the republic,” he said.
Homosexuality was decriminalised in the Russian Federation in 1993 but concern about homophobia remains high. In 2013, parliament passed a law imposing heavy fines for providing information about homosexuality to people under 18, sparking international controversy.
Chechnya gay rights: Putin backs inquiry into hate crimes