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Spokesman for Spanish King Juan Carlos denies monarch shot inebriated Russian bear

10/20/2006

MADRID, Spain — The king says it didn't happen. And the bear isn't around to talk about it anymore.

A spokeswoman for Spanish King Juan Carlos said Thursday that Russian reports the 68-year-old monarch brought down a tamed and inebriated bear during a visit in August were "ridiculous."

The palace confirmed the king, who is known to enjoy hunting, was in Russia at the time of the alleged shooting, but it says he didn't kill any bear, let alone one that was fed vodka-spiked honey.

"He neither hunted with (Russian President Vladimir) Putin nor killed a bear," a spokeswoman for the palace told The Associated Press.

But those denials are apparently not enough to stop regional Russian authorities from launching an inquiry into how the bear met its end.

Vyacheslav Pozgalyov, governor of the Vologda region, about 250 miles northeast of Moscow, set up a working group including a deputy governor and top environmental protection officials to look into the August incident, said his spokeswoman Yevgenia Toloknova.

Russia's top business daily Kommersant on Thursday cited a letter to the governor written by the region's deputy hunting chief, Sergei Starostin, claiming the bear — named Mitrofan — had been fed honey mixed with vodka before being released near the site where the king was to be hunting.

Toloknova refused to say whether any local officials had accompanied the king on his hunting trip. Starostin wrote in the letter that the local authorities turned the king's hunting into a "disgusting fraud."

Mitrofan, whom Starostin described as "a good-natured and joyful bear" was taken from his home at a local holiday resort and brought to the hunting place where they "generously fed him with vodka mixed with honey and pushed him into a field," the newspaper quoted the letter as saying.

"Naturally, a heavy, drunken animal became an easy target. His Highness Juan Carlos took Mitrofan out with one shot," Starostin said in the letter, according to Kommersant.

During the August trip, Juan Carlos met with Putin at the Russian president's vacation residence. The Russian media reports do not allege that Putin was present during the hunt.

Though the Spanish palace spokeswoman, whose name could not be used due to palace rules, described reports of the bear's shooting as "ridiculous," the king has reportedly taken aim at the shaggy beasts before.

Juan Carlos hunted bears and wild boar during a trip to Romania in 2004, according to Spain's El Mundo newspaper. That same year, he took up an invitation to hunt bison and pheasants in Poland.

It was unlikely the Russian reports would have any effect on Juan Carlos's high popularity at home.

The king is a respected father figure for modern Spain, acting largely as a figurehead monarch and international ambassador for all things Spanish.

Spaniards like his down-to-earth manner and family-man image — a loving husband, father and grandfather.

But he is perhaps most beloved for his role in putting down a 1981 coup attempt that sought to restore rightwing rule just six years after the death of dictator Gen. Francisco Franco.

The king went on television in the middle of the night to order the rebellious soldiers back to barracks, and the coup quickly fizzled.

Associated Press reporter Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.