Saudi Arabia confirmed late Friday that Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was killed inside its consulate in Istanbul.
In a statement on Saudi state television, the country’s chief prosecutor said a fight broke out between Khashoggi and “people who met him” in the consulate. The brawl resulted in Khashoggi’s death, the prosecutor said.
The confirmation marked an astounding reversal from earlier statements by Saudi officials who insisted that Khashoggi had left the consulate alive shortly after entering it on 2 October, when he was last seen publicly.
Saudi Arabia’s powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman insisted earlier this month that Khashoggi had left the consulate. “Yes. He’s not inside,” he said in an interview with Bloomberg published on 5 October. “My understanding is he entered and he got out after a few minutes or one hour.”
Saudi media also reported that Riyadh fired top general Ahmed al-Assiri and a senior adviser to the royal court, Saoud al-Qahtani. Mohammed Bin Saleh Al Rumeih, a pilot and assistant to the intelligence chief, was also dismissed.
Last week, Turkish officials told MEE and US media outlets that Saudi Arabia was preparing to admit Khashoggi was killed in the consulate, but would attempt to absolve bin Salman of any responsibility.The New York Times reported on Thursday that Riyadh was looking to blame Assiri for the murder in an effort to shield the crown prince from blame.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who earlier pledged to “sanction the hell out Saudi Arabia” if it was involved in Khashoggi’s murder, was quick to express his scepticism about the latest Saudi account.
“First, we were told Mr Khashoggi supposedly left the consulate and there was blanket denial of any Saudi involvement,” he wrote on twitter. “Now, a fight breaks out and he’s killed in the consulate, all without knowledge of Crown Prince.”
Democratic representative Adam Schiff tweeted: “The claim that Khashoggi was killed while brawling with 15 men dispatched from Saudi Arabia is not at all credible. If he was fighting with those sent to capture or kill him, it was for his life.”
Still, President Donald Trump said Saudi Arabia’s explanation was credible, Reuters reported. Speaking to reporters after a rally in Glendale, Arizona, Trump said Saudi Arabia’s announcement on the circumstances of Khashoggi‘s death was a “good first step.” He also said he prefers that any sanctions against Riyadh not include canceling big defense orders.
Trump’s spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said earlier in a statement: “We are saddened to hear confirmation of Mr Khashoggi’s death, and we offer our deepest condolences to his family, fiancée, and friends.”
A Turkish source who has listened in full to an audio recording of the Saudi journalist’s last moments told Middle East Eye that Khashoggi was tortured and killed in seven minutes inside the building.
“There was no attempt to interrogate him. They had come to kill him,” the source told MEE.
Salah Muhammad al-Tubaigy, who has been identified as the head of forensic evidence in the Saudi general security department, was one of a 15-member squad who arrived in Ankara earlier that day on a private jet.
Tubaigy began to cut Khashoggi’s body up on a table in the study while he was still alive, the Turkish source said.
On Friday night, a tweet that Qahtani, the dismissed adviser, wrote last year began making the rounds again on social media: “Do you think I rebuke (others) on my own accord without direction? I am an employee and a loyal executer to the orders of my master, the king, and my master, his highness the crown prince,” he wrote at the time.
The Saudi prosecutor added that the investigation was still underway and 18 suspects had been arrested so far.
A Saudi official familiar with the investigation told Reuters that the crown prince “had no knowledge of the specific operation” that resulted in Khashoggi’s death.
“There were no orders for them to kill him or even specifically kidnap him,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity and adding that there was a standing order to bring critics of the kingdom back to the country.
“MBS had no knowledge of this specific operation and certainly did not order a kidnapping or murder of anybody. He will have been aware of the general instruction to tell people to come back,” the official said.
Saudi state TV outlet Alekhbariya also reported that King Salman was forming a committee – to be headed by the crown prince – that will be tasked with “reconstructing the leadership of general intelligence, modernising its system and clearly defining its responsibilities”.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Saudi Arabia’s king spoke by phone late Friday, stressing the importance of maintaining full cooperation between Ankara and Riyadh as they investigate Khashoggi’s disappearance, Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency reported.
The leaders also shared information on the independent investigations being conducted by both countries, Anadolu said.
An unidentified Saudi official said in a statement late Friday that the kingdom expressed its “deep regret” over the incident. He added that discussions with Khashoggi in the consulate “did not go as required and developed in a negative way, leading to a fight” that in turn led to the journalist’s death “and to their attempt to conceal and cover what happened”.