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Vladimir Putin declined to talk about warrior robots and a mythical octopus, but he did attempt to answer the most popular question posed by Russian Internet users during an on-line chat: "What did you achieve by kissing the little boy Nikita on the stomach?"

The question, posed during a two-hour BBC broadcast yesterday in which Mr. Putin answered questions from the public, was inspired by an unusual incident last week in which the President kissed a boy's belly.

As part of Mr. Putin's attempt to soften his image ahead of the upcoming Group of Eight meetings, he recently hired expensive New York-based image consultants who persuaded the Kremlin to make the President available for a series of television appearances.

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The first of these broadcasts was the forum hosted by the BBC and Russia's biggest Internet portal, Yandex. The show generally stuck to serious issues such as North Korea, Iran and Russia's relations with the West.

But none of those issues were as popular as the boy-kissing question, which attracted more than 11,000 votes on the Yandex site.

Unlike some other popular requests for comment -- about Cthulhu, a fictional octopus invented by the novelist H. P. Lovecraft, or the likelihood that Russia might employ "giant, humanoid war robots" to defend itself -- the question didn't come entirely out of the blue.

Russian blogs and Internet message boards have been awash with chatter since June 28, when Channel One, Russia's largest broadcaster, showed Mr. Putin strolling past the golden domes and white stone of an Orthodox church inside the Kremlin grounds.

The President paused at a gaggle of tourists, and he seemed struck by the presence of a shy boy.

He grasped the fair-haired child by the arm, squatted in front of him, and asked his name.

"Nikita," the boy answered.

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Without further conversation, Mr. Putin quickly pulled up the boy's white tank-top and planted a kiss on his belly. Then he stood up, and brusquely walked away.

Russians are more likely than Westerners to express affection with kisses, but even by local standards the kiss was seen as overly familiar.

The phrase "Putin kissed a boy" became the top-ranked search item on Yandex the following day, and one blogger suggested the President might have been drunk.

Others speculated that it was a misguided attempt by Mr. Putin to make a tender gesture, after years of being caricatured in the media as a cold, disciplined former spy.

Mr. Putin seemed pleased to recount the story.

"You know, there was a chance meeting in the Kremlin, in the square," he said. "People came up, I started to talk to them. Among them, this little boy, Nikita.

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"He seemed sort of a boy all his own, very serious. And at the same time, a kid, you know, unprotected, defenseless. A very sweet child, really, a very smart kid.

"I tell you honestly, I just wanted to touch him like a kitten and that desire of mine ended in that act. There was really nothing behind it."

The kiss got little attention in the Russian media, which is largely controlled by the state.

But the Izvestia daily newspaper found the boy and identified him as five-year-old Nikita Konkin, who reportedly refused to wash after the kiss.

"I just liked him and he liked me very much," Nikita told the newspaper. "I want to be president myself."

Besides his talk about meeting Nikita, few of Mr. Putin's responses strayed from his previous statements.

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He reiterated his defence of Russia's energy policy, dismissing concerns about last winter's gas dispute with Ukraine as "hysteria" and adding that the Kremlin does not use oil and gas as political weapons.

"We now work on market principles, purely and solely," he said.

On the subject of North Korea, Mr. Putin said he's concerned about the recent missile tests but there is no need for alarm because the North Koreans still don't have the technology to strike thousands of kilometres away.

"When the means of delivery comes, the problem deepens," he said.

Mr. Putin also described his friendship with U.S. President George W. Bush, after harsh criticism from the United States about Russia sliding back into authoritarianism.

On that front, he gave a lengthy defence of media freedom in Russia and claimed that too many media outlets exist in the country for censorship to be a practical possibility.

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He defended the right of separatists in Georgia to struggle for self-determination, but also dismissed the legitimacy of separatists in Chechnya. "In the modern context, no armed struggle against any constitutional establishment can be justified," he said.

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