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Alexei Navalny’s family have accused Russian authorities of hiding his body to cover up what they say is a state-sponsored murder, as the authorities began to arrest people attending spontaneous memorial gatherings.

Kira Yarmysh, Navalny’s spokeswoman, said officials had given his mother contradictory information about the location of the opposition activist’s body, in what she described as a stalling tactic.

Lyudmila Navalnaya received a telegram on Saturday saying her son had died at 2:17pm local time on Friday, according to Yarmysh.

The telegram was from an official at the penal colony in Kharp, the village in northern Russia to which Navalny was transferred in December, Yarmysh said on social media.

But the prison and the morgue in Salekhard, a town an hour’s drive to the south, both claimed they did not have the body, while local investigators told Navalnaya they were still conducting examinations to establish a cause of death.

“The results will supposedly be available next week. It’s obvious that they are lying and doing everything they can to avoid handing over the body,” Yarmysh said.

The death of Navalny, 47, the most prominent critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has sparked outrage from western leaders and Navalny’s supporters, who accused Putin of being responsible.

UK foreign secretary David Cameron said: “there should be consequences when appalling human rights outrages like this take place”, according to Sky News.

Foreign ministers from the G7 group of major industrialised economies held a minute’s silence for Navalny at the start of a meeting at the Munich Security Conference on Saturday.

In Russia, police cracked down on spontaneous memorials for Navalny across the country, arresting hundreds of people and removing flowers laid the night before.

Police in Moscow were noticeably more hostile to protesters on Saturday than the day before. They filmed people leaving flowers and arrested those who held signs or chanted slogans, according to a person who left flowers at the Solovetsky Stone outside the headquarters of Russia’s FSB security service.

More than 170 people have been arrested at the memorials since Navalny’s death, according to independent rights monitor OVD-Info.

Navalny, a charismatic anti-corruption activist, was jailed just over three years ago after returning to Russia from Germany, following treatment for nerve agent poisoning that he blamed on Putin.

The Kremlin then moved to isolate him from the outside world by holding him under increasingly restrictive conditions in notoriously harsh and remote prison colonies.

Navalny’s death has devastated his allies and other opposition members, who have nonetheless vowed to keep on challenging Putin.

Maria Pevchikh, who chairs Navalny’s foundation, wrote: “Navalny was killed. It’s not clear how we are going to go on living, but we will definitely come up with something together. Alexei will live on forever in millions of people’s hearts, in our thoughts and memories. Otherwise what are we for? The killers will be punished. Inevitably. We will not forgive anyone.”

Boris Nadezhdin, a previously unremarkable politician who galvanised anti-war sentiment when he attempted to challenge Putin in presidential elections this year, wrote on social media that Navalny’s death was “a huge loss for all of us”.

“Right now people across Russia and all over the world are paralysed with pain from his loss, and it seems the dream of a free Russia has dissolved. But that’s not true. I will do everything to bring about what Alexei and millions of our citizens fought for,” Nadezhdin wrote.

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