By ZEINA KARAM -- The Associated Press
BEIRUT -- A woman appeared on Syrian state television Wednesday claiming that she is the young Syrian who was widely reported to have been beheaded and mutilated by security agents while in custody last month. The station said the interview was intended to discredit foreign "media fabrications."
Human rights groups, including Amnesty International, and Syrian activists reported last month that 18-year-old Zainab al-Hosni was found dead and mutilated after she was detained in her hometown of Homs. The young woman quickly became a symbol of the 6-month-old uprising against authoritarian President Bashar Assad, with protesters hailing her as the "flower of Syria."
Last month, Amnesty said the mutilated teenager had reportedly been detained by security agents to pressure her activist brother to turn himself in. Activists said she was the first woman to die in custody since the uprising began in March and it reinforced what witnesses and the U.N. human rights office said was a fearsome new tactic of retaliating against protesters' families.
But in the state television interview, a black-clad young woman who identified herself as Zainab al-Hosni said she had run away from her family home in late July because her brothers allegedly abused her. She said her family did not know that she was alive and she asked her mother for forgiveness.
"I am very much alive and I have opted to tell the truth because I am planning to get married in the future and have kids who I want to be registered," she said.
She said she decided to speak out after hearing on TV that she had been arrested and beheaded. Her appearance was similar to the woman whose photos were carried by protesters in Homs, but her identity could not be independently verified, as all media are severely restricted from reporting on events in Syria.
Amnesty International issued a statement after the interview saying it raised questions about the information the group received that led to its initial report on the death and mutilation.
"We have seen the reports that have aired on Syria TV suggesting that Zainab al-Hosni is alive. We are currently looking into this case working with trusted sources in the country," Amnesty said.
The rights group said its initial statement on the death was "based on information provided by sources close to the incident itself, who passed Amnesty International video footage of a dismembered body." It was not immediately clear who those sources were.
The statement went on to say: "If the body was not that of Zainab al-Hosni, then clearly the Syrian authorities need to disclose whose it was, the cause and circumstances of the death, and why Zainab al-Hosni's family were informed that she was the victim."
The episode, and Amnesty's statement raised the prospect that the story may have been a hoax planted by Syrian authorities, possibly in an effort to embarrass the media and human rights group who have been reporting critically on the government's brutal crackdown on mostly peaceful protesters that has killed nearly 3,000 people in six months.
The Syrian government blames the country's unrest on a foreign conspiracy and accuses the international media of spreading lies. State media allots much of its time and resources to discounting what it says are foreign media fabrications and lies. There are no independent or pro-opposition media outlets in Syria.
Homs is one of the hotbeds of the uprising. Al-Hosni was reported seized by men in plainclothes on July 27. At the time, it was thought she was targeted to pressure her brother Mohammed, who was organizing protests in Homs, according to Amnesty first statement last month.
The London-based group also said at that time that al-Hosni's mother found her body in the morgue in September and, according to the family, she had been decapitated and her body badly mutilated.
The Syrian government has banned foreign journalists and placed heavy restrictions on local coverage, making it difficult to independently verify events on the ground.
In other developments, a dissident colonel who now heads a group of army defectors calling themselves the Free Syrian Army said he has fled Syria and found refuge in neighboring Turkey.
Colonel Riad al-Asaad said the regime launched the brutal crackdown last week on the town of Rastan to try to capture him and his comrades who battled against the military. The army retook the town after five days of heavy fighting. Al-Asaad spoke to The Associated Press on Wednesday over the telephone.
He said he defected from the army in July after refusing to heed orders to shoot at protesters. Syrian military defections have since then increased.
Al-Asaad says the Free Syrian Army how has more than 10,000 defectors and is becoming the most serious challenge to the president's regime.
"I call on all the honorable people in the Syrian army to join us so we can liberate our country," he said. "It is the only way to get rid of this murderous regime."
Al-Asaad's comments from Turkey came as Turkey's military was scheduled to carry out eight days of exercises close to the 850-kilometer (520-mile) long border with Syria. The military has described the drills as routine but analysts said they were intended to increase pressure on Syria.
Turkey's prime minister said his country and other would press ahead with plans to sanction Damascus and would not be deterred by Monday's veto of a European-backed resolution that threatened sanctions against Syria if it didn't immediately stop its violence against civilians.
On Wednesday, Germany, France, Britain, Denmark and the EU joined Turkey in denouncing the veto by Russia and China on what would have been the first legally binding Security Council resolution against Syria since Assad's military began using tanks and soldiers to attack pro-democracy protesters in mid-March.
Russia and China both said they oppose the crackdown, but that sanctions would not help resolve the crisis. The U.N. vote was 9-2 with four abstentions -- India, South Africa, Brazil and Lebanon.
The Syrian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Syria appreciates the stance by Russia and China along with the countries that abstained from voting. The ministry said the move rekindled "hope and confidence in restoring some balance to the world system" after a longtime "domination" by the United States and Europe.