Putin reappears in public; laughs off 'rumours' over his 10-day absence

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Saint Petersburg (Russia), Mar 16: Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday dismissed days of frenzied "rumours" over his health and whereabouts as he reappeared in public after an unusually long 10-day absence.

The feverish speculation fuelled by social media saw all eyes turn to an otherwise unexceptional meeting planned between Putin and the leader of Kyrgyzstan to see whether the Russian strongman would appear.

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The typically tardy Putin was two hours late but showed up looking relaxed with no visible signs of ill-health, quelling the rumours that exposed the fragility of Russia's tightly-controlled political system dominated by one man.

"We would be bored if there were no rumours," Putin said as he met Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev at the sumptuous Konstantinov's Palace just outside Saint Petersburg.

In an apparent bid to dispel speculation about his host's ill health, Atambayev said Putin had taken him for a drive around the palace grounds before their meeting.

Dismissing the rumours, a smiling Atambayev said: "In their dreams." The usually omnipresent Putin, 62, was last seen in public on March 5 at a news conference with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.

However the rumour mill went into overdrive when he cancelled a number of scheduled events last week, including a trip to the Central Asian country of Kazakhstan and the planned signing of an alliance agreement with the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

While the Kremlin continued to release footage of Putin in meetings, many speculated that it had been filmed much earlier than when it was broadcast.

The Internet and even traditional media in Europe were set abuzz with speculation Putin had died, been deposed in a palace coup or had once again become a father.

Morbid jokes and gags spread on Russian social networks -- one of the last bastions of free speech in Russia -- and the hashtag #Putinumer (#Putindead) trended on Twitter.

"Has Putin died?" asked one website where the question was the only thing appearing on a blank page above a button which users could click to check, yielding responses such as "No" and "Still No".

AFP

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