THE internationally acclaimed blogger "A Gay Girl in Damascus", who for months has reported on tyranny in Syria, has been unveiled as a middle-aged man from Edinburgh University.
Online, Amina Abdallah Arraf al-Omari was a brave young lesbian who captured the world's attention with her daily despatches from the front-line of the protests sweeping the Middle Eastern country.
In reality she was the fictitious imaginings of Tom MacMaster, an American student at Edinburgh University, who yesterday apologised for the hoax – but defended his actions as a way of keeping attention focused on the country's human rights record.
"I regret that a lot of people feel that I led them on," he said.
"I regret that … a number of people are seeing my hoax as distracting from real news, real stories about Syria and real concerns of real, actual, on-the-ground bloggers, where people will doubt their veracity."
He said he also regretted that the country's official news agency, Sana, has been able to capitalise on the hoax as proof of "continuous fabrications and lies against Syria in term of kidnapping bloggers and activists".
Mr MacMaster, 40, who is studying for a masters at Edinburgh University, said he started the blog because he believed online posts about the Syrian and Israel-Palestinian situations would earn "some deference from obnoxious men" if written under an Arab woman's name rather than under his own, because "someone would immediately ask, 'Why do you hate America? Why do you hate freedom?'"
Over the past four months, hundreds of thousands of readers have followed the 25-year-old half-Syrian, American-born lesbian's furtive search for love in Damascus – where homosexuality must remain hidden – and her impassioned participation in demands for democracy.
She was described by one newspaper as "an unlikely hero of revolt in a conservative country" and her comments featured on CNN.
Last week, an online campaign was sparked by a post, allegedly written by Amina's cousin, which said the blogger had been captured by armed men linked to the country's dictator, Bashar al-Assad.
However, Mr MacMaster has now admitted making it all up, using the photograph of a Croatian women he had never met to illustrate his creation.
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He said: "I really felt a number of years ago, in discussions on Middle East issues in the US, often when I presented real facts and opinions, the immediate reaction to someone with my name was, 'Why are you anti-American? Why are you anti-Jewish?' So I invented a name to talk under that would keep the focus on the actual issue."
Mr MacMaster added: "People should stop focusing on the hoaxer and really be focusing on the most important people – the real people who are suffering in Syria."
Mr MacMaster, from the US state of Georgia, arrived in Scotland in September last year to begin a master's degree.
His wife, Britta Froelicher, was until recently an associate fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies at the University of St Andrews.
She was recently granted a leave of absence.
Suspicions about the blog's authenticity were first raised when "Amina" reported how her father, implausibly, persuaded the Syrian secret police not to arrest her. However, it was a number of technical clues that led to his unmasking. Amina was also a contributor to a "lezgetreal", a lesbian news site, and logged on 135 times from a computer whose IP address – the internet equivalent of a telephone number – was traced to Edinburgh University. Amina had also posted on her blog photographs which were identical to those posted by Ms Froelicher.
In his online apology, Mr MacMaster said that he had always wanted to write fiction and that he had joined several dating sites with different identities as a way of "interacting with real people in conversation but with a different personality".
The post, signed off from Istanbul, Turkey, where Mr MacMaster and his wife are believed to be on holiday, said: "While the narrative voice may have been fictional, the facts on this blog are true and not misleading as to the situation on the ground.
"I do not believe that I have harmed anyone. I feel that I have created an important voice for issues that I feel strongly about.
"I only hope that people pay as much attention to the people of the Middle East and their struggles in this year of revolutions.
"The events there are being shaped by the people living them on a daily basis. I have only tried to illuminate them."
He has also apologised to the woman whose picture he used on the site. Jelena Lecic, a Croatian now living in London, first spotted the picture in a national newspaper.
Last night, an Edinburgh University spokeswoman said: "The university will investigate whether the student has breached computing regulations. The principal has directed vice-principal knowledge management and chief information officer, Jeff Haywood, to suspend the student's computing privileges pending the outcome of the investigation."
A spokesman for St Andrews University said: "Ms Froelicher was a first year student conducting research towards a PhD and an associate fellow of the University of St Andrews Centre for Syrian Studies."