Vladimir Putin has appeared at a press conference sporting what appeared to be a black eye, prompting speculation that he has undergone plastic surgery or was injured in a judo fight, according to Telegraph.co.uk.

The 58-year-old Russian prime minister, famed for his action man image and robust health, seemed to be wearing heavy make up with a dark patch that looked like severe bruising around his left eye during a press conference in Ukraine on Wednesday.

Mr Putin usually eschews make-up for televised meetings but journalists noticed that his face was covered in a yellow-coloured foundation.

"Ukrainian, Russian and Western journalists ... talked only of one thing: How did the Russian prime minister get a black eye?" wrote Andrei Kolesnikov, a journalist from daily newspaper Kommersant who often travels with Mr Putin.

Like others, Mr Kolesnikov speculated that Mr Putin, a judo enthusiast, may have sustained the injury during a practice session on the mat.

"Could it really be the result of some tough sparring? While it was carefully covered up, it was noticeable to everyone without exception," he added.

Mr Putin cut short the news conference and also cancelled a planned dinner with his Ukrainian guests. Ukraine`s Levy Bereg weekly magazine wondered whether Mr Putin had resorted to cosmetic surgery. "Did Putin have a facelift?" it asked in a headline.

Mr Putin`s spokesman said the incident was a misunderstanding, claiming that the light had fallen awkwardly. He said Mr Putin was simply tired because he had recently "been working a great deal and was always travelling".

Mr Putin`s minders are sensitive to any suggestions that their charge might not be in full health as speculation builds that he may decide to run for president again in 2012.

By Andrew Osborn in Moscow