MOSCOW - VLADMIR Putin's appearance with bruised cheekbones during a visit to Ukraine this week aroused media speculation media on Thursday that the Russian prime minister had undergone plastic surgery.

However, Mr Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied that his face was bruised. 'The light was just falling badly (on his face). The prime minister was very tired,' he said.

When Putin met Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov on Wednesday, two asymmetrical dark patches were visible.

'Ukrainian, Russian and Western journalists ... only talked of one thing - how did the Russian prime minister get a bruise under his eye?' Andrei Kolesnikov wrote in the business daily Kommersant on Thursday.

'Perhaps it was caused by some tough sparring? Carefully covered up, it was nonetheless noticeable to all without exception,' Mr Kolesnikov said. Mr Putin, 58, has a black belt in judo.

The Ukrainian weekly Levy Bereg speculated on its website on Wednesday that Mr Putin had undergone plastic surgery, was suffering from a tooth problem or had a judo injury.

Plastic surgery for Putin?