The fate of a Russian photographer who disappeared nearly a month ago in eastern Ukraine remains a mystery despite scattered claims that DNA testing confirmed Andrei Stenin was dead.
A fellow Russian photojournalist claimed on September 2 that Stenin's remains have been identified, after he disappeared while covering fighting between pro-Kyiv and pro-Russian forces.
Another report, on the Russian FlashNord website, quoted the separatist "Donetsk People's Republic" as saying genetic tests had confirmed that remains found more than a week ago were Stenin's.
But Stenin's employers at news agency Rossiya Segodnya (also known as RIA Novosti) said they had no confirmation of Stenin's death. "We are awaiting the final results of genetic testing in the near future," Rossiya Segodnya Director-General Dmitry Kiselyov was quoted as saying.
The case has particularly alarmed Russians and international observers due to suggestions -- including by a Ukrainian official -- that Stenin, who was on assignment at the time, had been taken into custody by Ukrainian security forces.
Russian colleague and self-described "good friend" Vasily Maksimov (@vasilymaximov) announced Stenin's purported death via Twitter.
"Andrei Stenin's remains identified, it seems," Maksimov said. "RIA will soon let you know. Unfortunately, I no longer doubted this outcome. RIP."
The pro-Kremlin @Novorussia_ru feed also claimed Stenin's death had been confirmed, although it offered no attribution for the information.
The reports set off a wave of expressions of mourning for Stenin on social media.
Rossiya Segodnya had launched an online campaign in August featuring the #FreeAndrew Twitter hashtag.
Reports more than a week ago suggested Stenin's remains had been found along with the bodies of two other people, in some cases with accompanying photographs of a burned-out car said to have been found on the road between Snezhnye and Dmitrivka.
The leadership of the self-styled Donetsk People's Republic reportedly claimed at the time that equipment and other evidence at the scene indicated one of the bodies was that of Stenin.
Speculation over who might be responsible for Stenin's disappearance fueled ongoing debate in a conflict in which all sides have been criticized for their treatment of journalists.
Stenin had been working in areas of eastern Ukraine where some of the most intense fighting was taking place between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian separatists.
Many of his photographs showed the brutal realities of war and were shot while he was traveling with pro-Russian fighters. They included images of a captured Ukrainian soldier digging a grave for comrades, locals affected by the fighting, and pro-Russian fighters in combat or on leave.
In the bitter media environment of war-torn Ukraine, some had accused Stenin of working for Russian security forces. But no evidence of such ties has been produced publicly.
Reporters Without Borders had said it was "very concerned" over Stenin's whereabouts in the days after his disappearance:
Reporters Without Borders is very concerned about Andrei Stenin, an experienced war photographer working for the past few months in eastern Ukraine for Rossiya Segodnya, a Russian news agency formed in 2013 from the merger of several state-owned news outlets. Stenin has been missing since 5 August, when Rossiya Segodnya reported his disappearance. Reporters Without Borders urges anyone holding him to make it known, and to release him at once.
A RIA Novosti source said on 8 August that the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) was holding him near the southwestern city of Zaporozhye but a local SBU spokesman denied this and the Ukrainian government has yet to respond to requests by Rossiya Segodnya and local NGOs such as IMI for information. Representatives of the self-proclaimed People’s Republic of Donetsk said Stenin may have gone to Shakhtarsk, in the Donetsk region, where all communications are cut.
A spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin said four days after the disappearance that efforts were under way to find Stenin. "The relevant agencies are taking measures to bring the journalist back home because the life of any of our citizens, including journalists, is the top priority in such situations, of course," Dmitry Peskov was quoted as saying by ITAR-TASS.
On August 12, a RIA Novosti report quoted an aide to Ukraine's interior minister as saying Stenin had been "arrested."
"He [Stenin] was arrested by our security services," Anton Herashchenko, an aide to Ukraine's minister of internal affairs, said in an interview with Baltkom radio. "We think that Andrei Stenin may be guilty of aiding terrorists."
But Herashchenko subsequently complained he'd been quoted out of context and said he had no information about Stenin's whereabouts.
On August 20, he added that the Ukrainian National Security Service (SBU) "is not holding this man either."
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) representative on freedom of the media, Dunja Mijatovic, called for Stenin's "immediate release."
"This dangerous practice of detaining and abducting media workers is unacceptable and must end," Mijatovic said. "I call on those responsible to stop targeting journalists for carrying out their work."
Journalists from both the pro-Russian and pro-Kyiv sides have gone missing or turned up dead since separatist-fueled violence escalated in early April.
At least six other journalists have been killed this year in Ukraine.
-- Andy Heil