Russia's Putin reappears in public after 10-day absence, dismisses speculation over health

SAINT PETERSBURG (AFP/REUTERS) - Russia's President Vladimir Putin on Monday reappeared in public after an unusually long 10-day absence, dismissing as "rumours" frenzied speculation over his health and whereabouts.

Looking somewhat pale, Mr Putin shook hands with Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev at the start of a meeting at the sumptuous Konstantinov's Palace just outside Saint Petersburg, an AFP correspondent reported.

Mr Putin smiled easily as he sat before television cameras in the palace in Russia’s second city in his first public appearance since March 5. “It would be boring without gossip,” Mr Putin, looking relaxed if pale, told reporters.

In a carefully choreographed double-act, Mr Atambayev also vouched for the Russian leader’s health, saying that Mr Putin “just now drove me around the grounds, he himself sat at the wheel” after they met in St Petersburg, in an apparent bid to dispel all speculation about Mr Putin’s ill-health.

"In their dreams,” Mr Atambayev said with a smile.The meeting with Mr Atambayev was scheduled to start at noon but few were surprised that Mr Putin, who is known for his tardiness, showed up two hours late.Mr Putin’s absence from public view, a rare occurrence in Russia’s largely state-controlled media, had triggered a number of theories about the leader, ranging from him suffering poor health to being toppled in a palace coup by security hawks.

The unusual absence from the public eye set the Internet abuzz with rumours that he was sick, had died, had 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.His spokesman Dmitry Peskov was forced to fend off countless questions about each rumour, which he dismissed as “March madness”.

Mr Peskov on Monday said Mr Putin had driven his guest around the palace for about 15 minutes.“So everyone has now seen the paralysed president captured by a general who has just returned from Switzerland where he was delivering a baby?” he asked sarcastically.He said the two leaders were meeting near Saint Petersburg because Mr Atambayev’s daughter was studying in the city.“We longer want to talk about this. Everything is good.”

The Russian leader, 62, prides himself on a macho image, saying in 2008 he worked like a “galley slave” to run Russia.