Inconsistencies have cropped up in the story of a Syrian-American blogger reported to have been kidnapped by three armed men in Damascus, and now her very existence is being questioned.
The original reports, based largely on the account of a cousin of the blogger, Amina Arraf, said that Arraf was kidnapped on her way to the Syrian capital. She was highly regarded in some circles because she was an open lesbian and she condemned the Syrian government during its recent crackdown on protesters.
But a British woman came forward and said the ubiquitous picture said to be of the blogger was actually of her. Associated Press reporters tried to track down family and friends of the blogger in Virginia, where she was was said to have been born, but no public records were found with her name or her parents' names.
The report of her kidnapping first appeared on her blog, posted by Rania Ismail, Arraf’s reported cousin. But efforts by the Associated Press and FoxNews.com to contact Ismail were unsuccessful as well.
In an interview with FoxNews.com on Tuesday, Sandra Bagaria, Arraf's so-called partner, said she "crashed to the street" sobbing when she learned the night before that Arraf had been kidnapped. But on Wednesday, Bagaria said she never had met Arraf in person, only corresponded with her by email. “I never considered myself her partner," she told FoxNews.com on Wednesday. "She considered me her partner.”
A reporter for The Associated Press, who maintained a monthlong email correspondence with someone claiming to be Arraf, found the writer seemed very much like a woman in the midst of the violent change gripping Syria. The writer spoke about friends in Damascus, and outlined worries about her father and hopes for the future of her country.
In the emails, the person acknowledged fudging some details of escaping from Syrian security officials to protect herself and her family, and painted a harrowing picture of fleeing her home.
"We were going from one place to another so my dad and I went as husband and much younger wife; me covered, veiled...we hit a government block and he claimed...as though he were a Syrian expat...that our papers were in our hotel and started arguing with one guy," she wrote in an email dated May 23.
Friends contacted the British woman, Jelena Lecic, after seeing the photo in the Guardian, according to her representative.
"At first she didn't believe it, or that it was a mistake," said the representative, Kim Grahame of Just News International, a public relations firm. "She realized when she looked herself that it was one of her photos."
Lecic asked the Guardian to remove the photo, said Julius Just, the organization's chairman. He said Lecic was "extremely concerned" that some extremist might attack her on the assumption that she was a high-profile lesbian.
He said the newspaper pulled the photograph, only to replace it with another one -- also of Lecic.
Editors at the Guardian declined comment, referring to a correction on the website saying the images had been removed "pending investigation into the origins of the photographs and other matters relating to the blog."
Just, who described Lecic as an administrator, said his client believed her identity was stolen about a year ago, when her Facebook photographs appeared on another person's profile. He said neither he nor Lecic knew Arraf's identity.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.