President Vladimir Putin met with Prime Minister Tony Blair privately for half an hour during his four-day visit to London and Edinburgh.

"Relations between our two countries are excellent and continue to go from strength to strength," Blair's spokesman insisted on Tuesday.

The issue has a certain level of increased sensitivity for Blair now as he faces a parliamentary inquiry and plunging public credibility over allegations he hyped up evidence of Saddam Hussein's weapons.

"We do not intend to put salt into wounds," one high-ranking Kremlin official said. "We have wounds of our own."

Russian media has emphasised the former KGB spy's need to rebuild bridges with Britain and the United States.

Analysts say the visit will be an interesting event if only to observe how the leaders sooth relations after the taunts from Putin to Blair over the failure to find any banned weapons of mass destruction.

The Russian press is hoping Putin
(R), mends relations with the UK
and US

Apart from diplomatic dealings, the president's visit may see the finalisation of a $6.75 billion deal in which oil company BP would buy a 50 % stake in TNK, Russia's third largest oil company.

But human rights groups are also urging Blair to increase pressure on Putin over his war against Chechen rebels.

Putin, who is currently witnessing popularity at home, will stand for re-election next March. But he faces international condemnation for his clampdown on breakaway Chechnya, and on his nuclear cooperation with Iran.

He risks further criticism over the closure of Russia's last independent television station.

Nevertheless, Blair, who received a bottle of vodka from Putin on his 50th birthday in May, was glowing about the Russian in public.

Calling Putin's visit "a remarkable event in the lives of our two countries", he told Russia's Itar-Tass news agency on Monday that the Russian leader "impressed me from the very beginning, and I regard him as a very strong politician who speaks plainly".

"In political matters, if differences arise we are able to deal with them and we work together closely," Blair said.