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Putin strikes back at Russians who ridiculed his effort to help cranes

President Vladimir Putin struck back Sunday at the Russians who ridiculed his effort to lead young Siberian cranes in flight.

Like the youthful protesters on the streets of Moscow, some of the endangered birds refused to follow Putin as he took off in a motorized hang glider.

"It's true that not all flew right away, but the ones that didn't fly were the weak cranes," Putin said.

His barb, which drew a burst of applause, came as he wrapped up the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit and provided some light relief after days of talks on free trade, food security and other serious issues.

Putin went on to spin a parable of sorts that made clear he was comparing the wayward birds to the discontented Russians who had turned out in the tens of thousands this past winter to protest his 12-year rule.

The performance was a way for Putin to play up his role as host of the summit, which Russia used to showcase the potential of its resource-rich east, and for him to demonstrate his ability to put the opposition in its place.

On his way to Vladivostok for the summit, Putin stopped off at a Siberian ornithological research center to participate in a project to teach cranes raised in captivity to follow an aircraft so they can be led on their southern migration to Central Asia.

Dressed in a billowing white costume meant to imitate an adult crane, Putin made two flights in the open hang glider with a pilot sitting behind him. On the first attempt, only one of the young cranes followed him up, which Putin said was because a high tail wind had caused the hang glider to accelerate too fast.

On the second attempt, five birds followed Putin, but only two stuck with him for the full 15-minute flight.

Putin's flight, given many minutes of airtime on Russian television, provoked an array of contemptuous jokes on the Internet, one of the most popular being: "So Putin is off to wintering with cranes. Does this mean he's not going to be back before spring?"

Like a straight man feeding Putin a line, a Russian journalist on Sunday asked about an opposition figure's comment that only 63 percent of cranes support the Russian president, while the rest prefer to fly south or build nests on city squares and boulevards.

Putin won a third term in March with 63 percent of the vote. Some Russians frustrated by his suffocation of political freedoms have decided to leave the country and others have dedicated themselves to the protests, often held on squares and boulevards.

Putin called for applause for the question and took obvious pleasure in answering it.

"There are of course birds in the flock who just don't fly, and they prefer to build nests separated from the rest," Putin said. "But what can you do. That's a different problem. Even if they are not members of the flock they are members of our population and we have to treat them with care, when possible."

Since returning to the presidency after four years as prime minister, Putin has tightened the screws on the opposition. New repressive laws have been passed to deter people from taking part in unauthorized protests, opposition leaders have been subject to searches and criminal investigations, and three members of a feminist punk band have been sentenced to three years in prison for an anti-Putin prank in Moscow's main cathedral.

The next opposition protest in Moscow is planned for next Saturday.