By Alissa de Carbonnel
MOSCOW, Oct 31 (Reuters) - A leading Russian television channel pulled a report on civilian deaths and kidnappings in Chechnya on Sunday, stoking concerns the Kremlin is trying to censor critical reporting about the restive region ahead of a presidential election.
The 10-minute documentary, which included claims by a 26-year-old Chechen that local security forces had chained him to a radiator on a police base, was aired on NTV television in Russia's Far East but then taken off the air.
For prime-time audiences in Moscow and European Russia, the report was replaced with images of ballerinas twirling on the newly opened stage of the Bolshoi Theatre.
The NTV journalist who made the report, Nikolai Kovalkov, said he had expected to see it aired on Sunday night but could not comment on why it had not run.
A spokeswoman for NTV, which is controlled by state-controlled gas behemoth Gazprom , said the story had been withdrawn by management for revision and fact checking.
"The story was shown in the Far East, after which the management decided to send it back for revision and fact checking. This is common practice in news editorial bureaux," Maria Bezborodova said by telephone.
But human rights campaigners and journalists said NTV's decision to pull the programme shows the challenges many television reporters face in Russia.
"This scandal not only shows up the problems of the law in the Chechnya but of freedom of speech in Russia," Igor Kalyapin, who heads the Committee Against Torture, told Reuters. The Kremlin declined to comment.
Less than six months before a March presidential election, Russian television reporters say privately that they are under pressure to steer clear of topics their bosses feel might needle the Kremlin. Chechnya is one of those topics.
After two separatist wars since 1994, the Kremlin relies on local Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov - a former rebel and amateur boxer - to maintain the shaky peace and keep an Islamist insurgency in check.
Rights groups say forces under Kadyrov act with impunity and have been involved in human rights abuses, charges he and his supporters deny.
State television mostly steers clear of critical reporting on Chechnya. On Kadyrov's 35th birthday this month, state television broadcast lavish celebrations starring Hollywood actors and celebrity musicians invited to the Chechen capital.
In contrast to the celebratory images of Kadyrov's birthday, the host of the pulled NTV documentary said that although the war was over, kidnappings and killings continued.
"After it aired, someone from the Kremlin called -- as is usual the case," television journalist Andrey Loshak, who freelances for NTV, said by telephone.
"They (the reporters) convinced their bosses the story was worth the risk but sadly those bosses have their own bosses in the Kremlin." (Reporting by Alissa de Carbonnel; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Roger Atwood)