* Official accuses paper of printing "outright lies"
* But meets with paper's editor, offers grudging apology
By Alissa de Carbonnel
MOSCOW, June 14 (Reuters) - A Russian investigator on Thursday accused a leading liberal newspaper of fabricating a letter that said he had threatened a journalist in order to stir up anger among opponents of President Vladimir Putin, but admitted he had over-reacted.
In an editorial letter on Wednesday, Novaya Gazeta accused Alexander Bastrykhin, the head of Russia's investigative committee, of forcing Deputy Editor Sergei Sokolov to get into a car with his bodyguards and be driven to a forest where his life was threatened.
The incident rekindled memories of the 2006 murder of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya - who worked for the same paper - sparked calls for Bastrykhin's resignation, and refocused attention on how free Russia's press really is.
But Bastrykhin - who studied law with Putin at university - suggested the letter had been cooked up with the express intent of stirring popular outrage against a crackdown on anti-Kremlin opposition leaders who have organised protests against Mr Putin in recent weeks and months.
"It is strange that this letter has surfaced immediately after the searches that the Investigative Committee carried out among the leaders... of the opposition," Bastrykhin said in the online edition of Izvestia.
Describing the letter as "the ravings of an overactive mind" and as "outright lies," he said he had not been to the forest in question as he was too busy with his work.
But he did meet on Thursday with the head of major media outlets in Moscow to discuss the dispute in an apparent effort to defuse tensions.
Shaking hands with Novaya Gazeta's editor-in-chief Dmitry Muratov, he offered a grudging apology for a separate incident in which he had berated Sokolov for an editorial in which the paper had accused him of working for criminal gangs.
"I didn't have the right to explode but I exploded," Izvestia quoted Bastrykhin as saying.
"I apologised to the editor-in-chief. I received apologies for the excesses which were in the article I did not like," he told the Interfax news agency separately.
"The most important thing is that we have agreed to work further."
His contrition appeared to be an attempt to persuade Sokolov to return to Moscow and his job after fleeing for his own safety. Muratov indicated Sokolov would return.
The row has given the Kremlin's critics ammunition at a time when Mr Putin is battling to establish his credibility after a string of protests against his return to the Kremlin amid allegations that he cheated his way back to power.
Mr Putin - who remains popular outside Moscow and St. Petersburg - strongly denies such allegations and has accused his critics of trying to stir up trouble to undermine Russia.
His spokesman said he had been briefed on Bastrykhin's dispute with Novaya Gazeta and was following the situation.
Opposition leaders say the heavy-handed tactics employed by the Investigative Committee this week show Mr Putin is worried by the protests and have said they may backfire by shoring up the protest movement.
Sokolov, a veteran reporter, is leading an investigation into the lack of tangible results in the search for Anna Politkovskaya's killing, more than five years after she was gunned down in the stairwell of her central Moscow apartment on October 7, 2006.
Bastrykhin told Interfax that the Politkovskaya murder case would go back to court in two or three months. He also said that investigators had identified the killer of another Novaya Gazeta journalist - Natalia Estemirova.
Rights groups say 19 journalists, five of them from Novaya Gazeta, have been killed in Russia since 2000, and none of the masterminds has been jailed. (Reporting By Alissa de Carbonnel; Editing by Steve Gutterman and Andrew Osborn)