'Where is Putin?' Russians ask, as leader drops off the radar for a week

MOSCOW (AFP) - Where is President Vladimir Putin? The Kremlin was forced on Thursday to insist the Russian leader was in good health as rumours swirled online over his week-long absence from the public eye.

Mr Putin was last seen in public on March 5, when he met with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and, ever since he postponed a trip to Kazakhstan this week, Russians have grown increasingly curious about what their usually omnipresent leader is up to. The 62-year-old nurtures a fit, tough-guy image and rarely takes time off.

"There's no need to worry, he's absolutely healthy," Mr Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Echo of Moscow radio station on Thursday.

Mr Putin also postponed a meeting to sign an alliance agreement with the leader of the Georgian breakaway region of South Ossetia, and did not show up at a meeting of the FSB security agency.

Mr Peskov said the agreement with the rebel region may be signed next week and that Mr Putin's attendance at the FSB meeting was not planned.

He said Mr Putin was busy with Russia's economic crisis and has "meetings constantly, but not all meetings are public".

Asked if Mr Putin's handshake remains firm, Mr Peskov laughed and said: "It breaks your hand."

However, he evaded a question on when Mr Putin would next be seen on television.

"As soon as the sun comes out... and it starts smelling of spring, people start getting delusions," Mr Peskov told TASS agency.

Adding grist to the rumour mill, the RBK news website claimed that Kremlin footage purporting to show Mr Putin meeting regional governors and women on International Women's Day last week had in fact been filmed earlier. Mr Peskov denied this.

The last time the popular Russian strongman's health prompted such speculation at home was when he cancelled a number of foreign trips in 2012 after appearing to have developed a limp, which the Kremlin said was due to a sports injury.

Whispers in Moscow about a leader's health are nothing new, with Mr Putin's ailing predecessor Boris Yeltsin and former Soviet supremo Leonid Brezhnev the constant targets of rumours over their health.

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