BEIRUT (NEW YORK TIMES, REUTERS, BLOOMBERG) After two weeks of shifting stories, Saudi Arabia on Saturday (Oct 20) said its agents strangled Mr Jamal Khashoggi, a dissident journalist, during a fist fight inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, and that 18 men had been arrested in the case.
Saudi Attorney-General Sheikh Saud al-Mojeb said Mr Khashoggi died after talks at the consulate degenerated into an altercation. He did not disclose the whereabouts of the journalist's body.
"Discussions that took place between him and the persons who met him... at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul led to a brawl and a fist fight with the citizen, Jamal Khashoggi, which led to his death, may his soul rest in peace," the Attorney-General said in a statement.
The 18 arrested comprised 15 men who were sent to confront Mr Khashoggi, one driver and two consular staff members, a Saudi official said.
Saudi state media said King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud had ordered the dismissal of five officials, including Mr Saud al-Qahtani, a royal court adviser seen as the right-hand man to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, and deputy intelligence chief Ahmed al-Assiri.
The Saudi official said Major-General Assiri had organised the operation and that Mr Qahtani had known about it and contributed to an aggressive environment that allowed it to escalate.
A Saudi official told Reuters separately: "A group of Saudis had a physical altercation and Jamal died as a result of the chokehold. They were trying to keep him quiet."
United States President Donald Trump said Saudi Arabia's statements were credible and that, along with its announcement of arrests, amounted to "good first steps".
Mr Trump, who has built strong ties with the Saudi crown prince, popularly dubbed MBS, said he would consider "some form of sanction" in response but that he "would prefer we don't use as retribution" the cancellation of US$110 billion (S$151 billion) worth of arms sales to the Saudis.
Representative Adam Schiff of California was not buying the Saudi explanation. Mr Schiff, the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said last Friday night that he had received a classified briefing on what US spy services believe were the circumstances of Mr Khashoggi's death and that the Saudi version "was not credible".
Since Mr Khashoggi vanished after entering the Saudi consulate on Oct 2, Riyadh has offered various explanations for his disappearance.
The Saudis initially claimed that Mr Khashoggi had left the consulate alive. Later, they hinted that the killing might have been the act of rogue agents.
But outrage mounted as Turkish officials leaked details from their own investigation suggesting that he was killed inside the consulate and dismembered by Saudi agents who flew in specifically to kill him.
A Saudi official familiar with the government's handling of the situation yesterday put forward the kingdom's narrative of events.
The kingdom had a general order to return dissidents living abroad, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
When the consulate in Istanbul reported that Mr Khashoggi would be coming on Oct 2 to pick up a document needed for his coming marriage to his Turkish fiancee, Maj-Gen Assiri dispatched a 15-man team to confront him.
But the order to return Mr Khashoggi to the kingdom was misinterpreted, the official said, and a confrontation ensued when Mr Khashoggi saw the men.
The team then gave the body to a local collaborator to dispose of, the official said. "We don't know for certain what happened to the body," he said.
The crown prince had no knowledge of the specific operation that resulted in Mr Khashoggi's death, the official added. "There were no orders for them to kill him or even specifically kidnap him."
Meanwhile, there was shock in Saudi Arabia, where many had believed - and defended - initial official claims that the authorities had nothing to do with the case.
"A very sad day for this nation, to see what the country had descended into," said one man, who spoke on condition of anonymity to criticise a government that tolerates virtually no dissent.
But the kingdom's highest religious body, the Council of Senior Scholars, said the king's decisions on Mr Khashoggi's killing "achieve justice and equality in accordance with Islamic law".
The slain journalist's fiancee, Ms Hatice Cengiz, tweeted in Arabic: "The heart grieves, the eye tears, and with your separation we are saddened, my dear Jamal," she said, adding: "#where is martyr Khashoggi's body?"