RIYADH (REUTERS/AFP) - As Saudi Arabia faced intensifying international scepticism over its story about the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a senior government official laid out a new version of the death inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul that in key respects contradicts previous explanations.
The latest account, provided by a Saudi official who requested anonymity, includes details on how the team of 15 Saudi nationals sent to confront Mr Khashoggi on Oct 2 had threatened him with being drugged and kidnapped, and then killed him in a chokehold when he resisted. A member of the team then dressed in Mr Khashoggi's clothes to make it appear as if he had left the consulate.
After denying any involvement in the disappearance of Mr Khashoggi, 60, for two weeks, Saudi Arabia on Saturday morning said he had died in a fist fight at the consulate. An hour later, another Saudi official attributed the death to a chokehold, which the senior official reiterated.
Turkish officials suspect the body of Mr Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and critic of powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was cut up, but the Saudi official said it was rolled up in a rug and given to a "local cooperator" for disposal. Asked about allegations that Mr Khashoggi had been tortured and beheaded, he said preliminary results of the investigation did not suggest that.
The Saudi official presented what he said were internal Saudi intelligence documents which appeared to describe an initiative to bring dissidents home to Saudi Arabia, including the specific one involving Mr Khashoggi.
He also showed testimony from those involved in what he described as the 15-man team's cover-up, and the initial results of an internal probe. He did not provide proof to substantiate the findings of the investigation and the other evidence.
This narrative is the latest Saudi account that has changed multiple times. The authorities initially dismissed reports that Mr Khashoggi had gone missing inside the consulate as false and said he had left the building soon after entering.
When the media reported a few days later that he had been killed there, they called the accusations "baseless".
Asked by Reuters why the government's version of Mr Khashoggi's death kept changing, the official said the government's initial account was based on "false information reported internally at the time".
"Once it became clear these initial mission reports were false, it launched an internal investigation and refrained from further public comment," the official said, adding that the investigation is continuing.
Turkish sources say the authorities in Turkey have an audio recording purportedly documenting Mr Khashoggi's murder inside the consulate but have not released it.
Riyadh dispatched a high-level delegation to Istanbul last Tuesday and ordered an internal investigation.
Meanwhile, United States President Donald Trump has accused Saudi Arabia of lying about the killing of Mr Khashoggi, his strongest comments to date on the affair as pressure builds on the administration to strike a tougher line.
In an interview with the Washington Post published late on Saturday (Oct 20), Mr Trump stepped back from his stance that Saudi Arabia’s latest explanation for the death of the journalist inside their consulate in Istanbul was credible, but said he remained confident in the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
“Obviously there’s been deception and there’s been lies,” he said on the shifting accounts offered by Riyadh.
“Their stories are all over the place,” added Mr Trump.
But he stopped far short of calling for Prince Mohammed, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, to be replaced, emphasising as he has before how important the US- Saudi relationship is to Washington’s regional strategic goals. He described the prince as a “strong person; he has very good control.”
“He’s seen as a person who can keep things under check,” added Mr Trump. “I mean that in a positive way.”
Mr Trump added that he has yet to be shown any evidence by intelligence officials that would make him believe MBS had any direct role. “Nobody has told me he’s responsible. Nobody has told me he’s not responsible. We haven’t reached that point. I haven’t heard either way,” the president said.
“There is a possibility he found out about it afterward. It could be something in the building went badly awry. It could be that’s when he found out about it. He could have known they were bringing him back to Saudi Arabia.”
Meantime, the UK, France and Germany said the hypotheses raised by the Saudi investigation need to be backed by facts to be considered credible.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday (Oct 21) vowed to reveal the “naked truth” over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, saying that he would make a new statement on the case next week.
“We are looking for justice here and this will be revealed in all its naked truth, not through some ordinary steps but in all its naked truth,” Erdogan told a rally in Istanbul.
According to the latest version of the death, the government wanted to convince Mr Khashoggi, who moved to Washington a year ago fearing reprisals for his views, to return to the kingdom as part of a campaign to prevent Saudi dissidents from being recruited by the country's enemies, the official said.
To that end, the official said, the deputy head of the General Intelligence Presidency Ahmed al-Asiri put together a 15-member team from the intelligence and security forces to go to Istanbul, meet Mr Khashoggi at the consulate and try to convince him to return to Saudi Arabia.
"There is a standing order to negotiate the return of dissidents peacefully; which gives them the authority to act without going back to the leadership" the official said.
"Asiri is the one who formed the team and asked for an employee who worked with (senior royal adviser Saud) al-Qahtani and who knew Jamal from the time they both worked at the embassy in London," he said.
The official said Mr Qahtani, who worked for the crown prince, had signed off on one of his employees conducting the negotiations.
According to the plan, the team could hold Mr Khashoggi in a safe house outside Istanbul for "a period of time" but then release him if he ultimately refused to return to Saudi Arabia, the official said.
Things went wrong from the start, as the team overstepped their orders and quickly employed violence, the official said.
Mr Khashoggi was ushered into the consul general's office where an operative named Maher Mutreb spoke to him about returning to Saudi Arabia, according to the government's account.
Mr Khashoggi refused and told Mr Mutreb that someone was waiting outside for him and would contact the Turkish authorities if he did not reappear within an hour, the official said.
Mr Khashoggi's fiancée, Ms Hatice Cengiz, has told Reuters he handed her his two mobile phones and left instructions that she should wait for him and call an aide to Turkey's president if he did not reappear.
Inside the consul's office, according to the official's account, Mr Khashoggi told Mr Mutreb he was violating diplomatic norms and said, "What are you going to do with me? Do you intend to kidnap me?"
Mr Mutreb replied, "Yes, we will drug you and kidnap you", in what the official said was an attempt at intimidation that violated the mission's objective.
When Mr Khashoggi raised his voice, the team panicked. They moved to restrain him, placing him in a chokehold and covering his mouth, according to the government's account.
"They tried to prevent him from shouting but he died," the official said. "The intention was not to kill him." Asked if the team had smothered Mr Khashoggi, the official said: "If you put someone of Jamal's age in this position, he would probably die."
To cover up their misdeed, the team rolled up Mr Khashoggi's body in a rug, took it out in a consular vehicle and handed it over to a "local cooperator" for disposal, the official said. Forensic expert Salah Tubaigy tried to remove any trace of the incident, the official said.
Turkish officials have told Reuters that Mr Khashoggi's killers may have dumped his remains in Belgrad Forest adjacent to Istanbul, and at a rural location near the city of Yalova, 90km south of Istanbul.
Turkish investigators are likely to find out what happened to the body "before long", a senior official said.
The Saudi official said the local cooperator is an Istanbul resident but would not reveal his nationality. The official said investigators were trying to determine where the body ended up.
Meanwhile, operative Mustafa Madani donned Mr Khashoggi's clothes, eyeglasses and Apple watch and left through the back door of the consulate in an attempt to make it look like Mr Khashoggi had walked out of the building. Mr Madani went to the Sultanahmet district, where he disposed of the belongings.
The official said the team then wrote a false report for superiors saying they had allowed Mr Khashoggi to leave once he warned that Turkish authorities could get involved, and that they had promptly left the country before they could be discovered.
Sceptics have asked why so many people, including military officers and a forensics expert specialising in autopsies, were part of the operation if the objective was to convince Mr Khashoggi to return home of his own volition.
The disappearance of Mr Khashoggi, a Saudi insider turned critic, has snowballed into a massive crisis for the kingdom, forcing the 82-year-old monarch, King Salman, to personally get involved. It has threatened the kingdom's business relationships, with several senior executives and government officials shunning an investor conference in Riyadh scheduled for this week and some US lawmakers putting pressure on Mr Trump to impose sanctions and stop arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
The official said all 15 team members had been detained and placed under investigation, along with three other local suspects.