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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Council of Europe Concerned With Journalist's Disappearance

KIEV, Ukraine - The Council of Europe offered Wednesday to conduct an independent analysis of audio tapes that allegedly indicate that Ukraine's president was involved in the disappearance of an opposition journalist.

The council, the continent's leading human rights watchdog, said in a statement that it would only arrange such a study if Ukraine's parliament officially requests help in establishing the authenticity of the tapes.

Heorhiy Gongadze, 31, a critic of the government and of alleged high-level corruption, was reported missing Sept. 16. He edited the Ukrainska Pravda internet newspaper.

In November, a beheaded body was found in the Kiev region and experts said it likely belonged to Gongadze.

Former presidential bodyguard Major Mykola Melnichenko then accused President Leonid Kuchma of involvement in the case. Melnichenko, who is hiding abroad, claimed that he secretly taped Kuchma and other top officials discussing steps to silence Gongadze.

He gave the recordings to Socialist party leader Oleksandr Moroz, who publicized them. In the recording, a man who sounds like Kuchma talks of Gongadze, but it is not clear whether he is ordering any action or simply venting anger.

Kuchma and others named by Melnichenko have strongly denied his allegations and questioned the tapes' authenticity.

Members of the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly visited Kiev last week and "were deeply concerned by the repeated aggression, intimidation and murders of journalists in Ukraine," according to Wednesday's statement.

"(They) considered investigation of Gongadze case a test of freedom of expression and the functioning of parliamentary democracy in Ukraine," the statement said.

Critics have long accused Kuchma of suppressing opposition media through court fines and tax penalties, but the government denies these charges.