President Vladimir Putin denied that he was planning to marry a 24-year- old gymnast yesterday, and told journalists to keep their "snotty noses" out of his private life.
An article published in a Russian newspaper last week said Mr Putin had secretly divorced his wife Ludmilla two months ago and was planning a secret wedding in June. The bride was alleged to be Alina Kabayeva, an Olympic gold medallist for rhythmic gymnastics. On her website, Ms Kabayeva says her hobbies include pets and collecting cuddly toys.
During a briefing in Sardinia with Italy's newly elected prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, Mr Putin told journalists: "In what you said, there is not a single word of truth. Nobody should ever interfere in others' private lives. I have always reacted negatively to those who, with their snotty noses and erotic fantasies, prowl into others' lives."
Rumours have long circulated in Moscow that Mr Putin and his wife have separated, and the Russian President has recently projected an image of virility. He has been photographed topless with bulging muscles, and was once overheard cracking a joke to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert over the rape allegations against President Moshe Katsav.
"He really surprised us ... He didn't look like a guy who could be with 10 women," said Mr Putin with a smile.
Yesterday, he said that it was not the first time he had been romantically linked with young, beautiful women and that he liked them all, because they were all Russian women.
"I don't think anyone will be offended if I say that I personally think that our Russian women are the most talented and most beautiful," said Mr Putin. "Perhaps it's only Italian women who can compete," he added to applause from the gathered Russian and Italian journalists.
Moskovsky Korrespondent, the newspaper which ran the original story about Mr Putin and Ms Kabayeva, published an editorial late Thursday night apologising for any offence the story caused, but refused to retract the piece, saying that the paper had published rumours, labelled them as rumours, and had not claimed any guaranteed factual basis to the story. The allegations had been widely covered in European newspapers but virtually ignored by the mainstream Russian press, which on the whole conforms to the Kremlin line that digging around in Mr Putin's private life is taboo.
However, it was a Russian journalist who asked Mr Putin the question at his press conference in Sardinia. Mr Berlusconi, who earlier this week joked that Italy would be better off without newspapers, apparently raised his fingers and pretended to shoot the offending journalist, which his spokesman later referred to as a "playful gesture".
Mr Berlusconi's meeting with Mr Putin at his villa was the first meeting with a world leader since his re-election. Mr Putin said he had asked for the meeting before he knew the election results: "I haven't seen him for a long time. I missed him."