One of the top human rights activists in Russia's turbulent North Caucasus region was found murdered on Wednesday hours after she was abducted from her home in Chechnya, officials said.
Prize-winning activist Natalya Estemirova worked for the leading Russian rights group Memorial which has exposed a string of abuses in the conflict-torn region.
Her corpse, which showed signs of a violent death, was found at 5:20 pm (1320 GMT) near the city of Nazran in Ingushetia, the region neighbouring Chechnya, ITAR-TASS news agency said, citing the regional interior ministry.
According to preliminary information "she was shot dead", the agency's source added.
The Interfax news agency quoted the spokesman for the investigative committee of Russian prosecutors, Vladimir Markin, as saying that documents confirming her identity had been found on the corpse.
The Memorial rights group had said in a statement earlier that Estemirova "was forcefully taken from her house into a car and shouted that she was being kidnapped" at 8:30 am (0430 GMT) in the Chechen capital Grozny.
Memorial said that Estemirova had planned a number of meetings on Wednesday, including a joint trip with the Chechen interior ministry. "But she did not appear at the appointed places and she did not telephone."
Estemirova was one of the main Caucasus-based activists for Memorial, an organisation acclaimed worldwide for its uncovering of rights abuses and studies of distortions of history in Russia.
In 2007 she was awarded the Anna Politkovskaya prize -- named after the murdered journalist -- by the Nobel Women's Initiative, a group established by female Nobel Peace Prize laureates.
She had also received awards from the Swedish and European parliaments, Memorial said. "Chechen authorities had expressed dissatisfaction with her work more than once," Memorial said. The statement from Memorial did not give any indication of who might have carried out the abduction.
Russia earlier this year ended a 10-year "counter-terrorism" operation in Chechnya, a mainly Muslim region riven by two separatist wars since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
But Chechnya and other parts of the Russian Caucasus remain the site of a deadly insurgency led by Islamist militants against the pro-Kremlin local authorities, who in turn have been accused of abuses in fighting the rebels.
Concerns have grown in the last weeks about the stability of the Caucasus after Ingushetia's leader Yunus-Bek Yevkurov was seriously wounded in a car bombing on June 22.
Security forces are being killed in clashes with militants on an almost daily basis and last week 10 Chechen police officers were killed in a militant ambush in Ingushetia.
Memorial and Human Rights Watch had earlier this month issued a hard-hitting report accusing Chechen security forces of punishing families of alleged militants by burning down their homes.
Meanwhile, the authorities have failed to secure any convictions over the 2006 killing in Moscow of Politkovskaya, who exposed abuses by Russian security forces in Chechnya and vehemently criticised the Kremlin.
Russia has also not solved the January murders of young journalist Anastasia Baburova and human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov who were gunned down in central Moscow as they left a news conference.