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Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai denies making sexual assault claim

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By Euronews  with AFP, AP
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Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai reacts during a tennis match in Beijing, China on Oct. 6, 2009.
Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai reacts during a tennis match in Beijing, China on Oct. 6, 2009.   -   Copyright  Ng Han Guan / AP

Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai has denied saying that a senior Communist Party leader sexually assaulted her despite her November social media post and insisted she is living freely, in her first media interview since her accusations triggered concerns for her safety.

The Lianhe Zaobao Chinese-language newspaper posted a video of Peng in which she said she has been mainly staying at home in Beijing but was free to come and go as she chose.

"First of all, I want to emphasise something that is very important. I have never said nor written anything accusing anyone of sexually assaulting me," Peng said in the footage apparently filmed on a phone at a sports event in Shanghai on Sunday.

"I would like to emphasise this point very clearly," she went on.

However, the comments did not ease worries at the Women's Tennis Association (WTA), which said on Monday that it still had "significant concerns about her well-being and ability to communicate without censorship or coercion".

In a social media post last month, Peng had alleged that former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli forced her into sex during an on-off relationship spanning several years.

The post was quickly scrubbed from the Chinese web, but not before screenshots were posted on Twitter, setting off a global outcry.

The former Wimbledon and French Open doubles champion then disappeared from public appearances for around three weeks.

The incident sparked international concern about her safety, including from the UN, the White House, and fellow tennis stars.

In the Zaobao video, when asked about her social media statement, Peng did not deny the post but described it as a "private matter" that people had "many misunderstandings" about.

She did not elaborate.

In the video, a person is heard asking if she is able to move around freely and if she has been under surveillance since making the accusations. The Chinese tennis star responded that she has "always been very free".

The WTA said it was still not convinced of Peng's wellbeing. "We remain steadfast in our call for a full, fair and transparent investigation, without censorship, into her allegation of sexual assault," the organisation noted.

The WTA has suspended all events in China indefinitely following the accusations.

Concerns over Peng's wellbeing and freedom

The latest video follows images of Peng published by Chinese state media, including some of her at a tennis tournament.

A screenshot of an email Peng purportedly wrote to the WTA saying "everything is fine" was also published, but it did little to ease worries.

WTA chief Steve Simon said at the time he had "a hard time believing" Peng's email and questioned whether she was really free to speak openly.

In the latest video, dressed in a red T-shirt and dark down jacket, both with "China" emblazoned on them, Peng told Zaobao that the email was legitimate and written "entirely of my own free will".

Hours earlier, unverified images posted online by a Chinese state-affiliated journalist showed Peng speaking with Yao and two other Chinese sports figures – Olympic sailing champion Xu Lijia and retired table tennis player Wang Liqin.