By Gabriella Borter
(Reuters) - Two men being questioned in connection with an alleged racist and homophobic assault on "Empire" actor Jussie Smollett in Chicago are potential suspects in the alleged crime, the city's police department said on Friday.
Authorities had previously said only that the pair, whose names have not been released, were persons of interest after they were recognized from surveillance camera footage taken in the area where Smollett said two men shouted slurs at him and put a rope around his neck on Jan. 29.
"Detectives have probable cause that they may have been involved in an alleged crime and we are working to corroborate the allegations and investigative timeline as our investigation continues," police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said in a statement.
He has denied a media report on Thursday that said officers were investigating whether Smollett staged the attack because he was being written out of the television show.
"While we haven't found any video documenting the alleged attack, there is no evidence to say that this is a hoax. The alleged victim is being cooperative at this time and continues to be treated as a victim, not a suspect," Guglielmi said on Friday.
News of the alleged attack on Smollett, a 36-year-old openly gay African-American who plays a gay character on the hip-hop drama "Empire," caused uproar on social media, but some have doubted Smollett's account.
In an interview with "Good Morning America" that aired on Thursday, Smollett said he was angry that some people questioned his story, and he suggested the disbelief might come from racial bias.
The two men questioned by police know Smollett from working on "Empire" and were picked up at Chicago O'Hare International Airport on Wednesday after returning from Nigeria where they were visiting family, their lawyer Gloria Schmidt told Chicago TV station CBS2.
Schmidt could not be immediately reached for comment on Friday.
Twentieth Century Fox Television, the producer of "Empire" released a statement on Thursday saying the idea that Smollett has been, or would be, written out of the show was "patently ridiculous," and that they continue to stand behind him.
(Reporting by Gabriella Borter; Editing by Alistair Bell)