New images emerge of Syrian boy who became symbol of war-torn Aleppo

BEIRUT (NYTIMES) - A young Syrian boy who captured the world's attention last year when images of his blood- and dust-covered face spread across the Internet has re-emerged this week - in interviews on news outlets with ties to the Syrian government.

The boy, Omran Daqneesh, came to symbolise the plight of civilians besieged by government forces in eastern Aleppo when his family's home was bombed in August and local activists shared photos and video of the frightened Omran on social media.

Now, he and his family have appeared in a series of televised interviews on news channels supportive of President Bashar Assad, apparently part of a calculated public relations campaign by the Syrian government.

These are the first images of Omran - his cheeks pudgier, his face cleaner - that have been broadcast since he was rescued by volunteer emergency workers. At the time, his family had refused to speak to the news media.

The latest interviews appear on outlets that favour the Syrian government: Russian-, Iranian- and Lebanese-run state television, and on Syrian channels that have backed Assad in his six-year war against opposition forces.

In an interview with the Russian outlet Ruptly, Omran turns to the camera and tells the interviewer hesitantly, "I am Omran Daqneesh. I am 4 years old."

Initial information from activists in Syria had indicated Omran was 5 at the time of the attack, illustrating how difficult it has been to verify the facts of his story.

Omran's father, Mohamad Kheir Daqneesh, said in an interview on Iranian state TV that he feared for his son's safety after the first images spread across the Internet.

"I changed Omran's name so no one will know him, and I changed his haircut, so no one will film him or recognise him," Daqneesh told Hosein Mortada, a journalist with Iran's Al-Alam News.

In the clip, Omran's once shaggy hair is cropped.

After the Syrian civil war began in 2011, the Daqneesh family stayed in eastern Aleppo despite an intensifying government siege to rid the area of opposition fighters, leading some to assume that the family supported the rebels.

But many families stayed in the divided city to protect their property.

"I stayed in Syria. This is my country, where I grew up and lived and my children will grow up in it," Daqneesh said in another interview that was broadcast Monday.

He also criticised the opposition fighting to oust Assad. "They are the ones who hurt us and our country and displaced the people," he said.

Syrians appearing on state television or on channels associated with the Assad government are not able to speak freely. The government exerts tight control over all information broadcast about the war, including interviews with civilians.

Speaking to a pro-government news outlet in Aleppo, Daqneesh recounted the night of the attack, which left one of his sons, 10-year-old Ali, dead.

The sudden nature of the "strike" - as Daqneesh called it - left him scrambling to rescue his children. He said he first found Omran and carried him to safety before returning to search for his other children and his wife.

Daqneesh did not say who was behind the attack, but he said he did not hear planes overhead before his house was shaken. This contradicts accounts from emergency medical workers and local journalists who at the time reported Syrian government or Russian airstrikes.

Volunteer emergency responders, known as the White Helmets, arrived shortly after the home was hit and helped evacuate the family, Daqneesh said.

"They took Omran, got him to the ambulance, where they filmed him," Daqneesh said. "It was against my will. I was still upstairs in the house."

Daqneesh said he was pressured by opposition activists after Omran was released from the hospital to "talk against the Syrian regime and the state," adding that he had been offered money to do so, which he refused.

Supporters of the government and opposition activists have been quick to accuse each other of using Omran to further their own agenda.

Last year, after the images of Omran galvanised international attention around the plight of besieged civilians in Aleppo, Assad told Swiss television he thought the whole incident was a hoax - "part of the publicity of those White Helmets."

"This is a forged picture, not a real one," Assad said at the time.

Now, Assad is using Omran and his family, who are living in an area controlled by government forces, to endorse his view of the war and discredit the opposition.

In several of the interviews broadcast this week, Daqneesh claimed it was the rebels who had tried to intimidate him.

"They wanted to use his photo and use him," Daqneesh said, adding that armed men also threatened to kidnap Omran.

A prominent opposition activist, Abdelkafi al-Hamdo, who fled Aleppo in December, said he had heard reports that Omran's father was recently contacted by Musa Omar, a pro-opposition journalist, who offered donations and asked if Omran could be on camera.

"Omran's father said, 'No, I don't need the money and I don't want my child to be on cameras,'" Hamdo said in a WhatsApp group message. "But can Omran's father say no to the regime?"