RIYADH • Top US diplomat Mike Pompeo has held talks with Saudi King Salman to get answers on the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, amid US media reports that the kingdom may be mulling over an admission that he died during a botched interrogation.
"Rogue killers" could be to blame for the disappearance of Mr Khashoggi, who has not been seen since he walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct 2 to sort out marriage paperwork, US President Donald Trump said after telephone talks with the King.
Mr Trump dispatched Mr Pompeo to Riyadh for what the State Department described as "face-to-face meetings with the Saudi leadership".
After his talks with the King yesterday, Mr Pompeo was to have dinner with his powerful son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a US official told the accompanying media.
Turkish police on Monday searched the consulate for the first time since the disappearance of Mr Khashoggi, a Saudi national and US resident who had become increasingly critical of Prince Mohammed.
Turkish officials have said they believe he was killed - a claim Saudi Arabia has denied - with the controversy dealing a huge blow to the Crown Prince's efforts to showcase a reform drive and burnish the kingdom's image.
UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet called yesterday for the lifting of the immunity for officials who might be involved in Mr Khashoggi's disappearance.
Until Monday, Riyadh had not allowed Turkish investigators to search the consulate - officially Saudi territory - with reports that both sides were at odds over the conditions.
The investigators, who searched the premises for eight hours into yesterday morning, took samples with them, including soil from the consulate garden, one official at the scene said.
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said after the search that some materials at the Saudi consulate have been painted over.
"My hope is that we can reach conclusions that will give us a reasonable opinion as soon as possible because the investigation is looking into many things, such as toxic materials and those materials being removed by painting them over," Mr Erdogan told reporters in Ankara.
Istanbul police are also planning to search the nearby consul's residence, a diplomatic source said.
On Monday, CNN cited two sources as saying that the Saudis are preparing a report that Mr Khashoggi's death resulted from a botched interrogation, while The Wall Street Journal said the kingdom was weighing whether to say that rogue operatives had killed the journalist by mistake.
After his crunch talks in Riyadh yesterday, Mr Pompeo was expected in Turkey today to meet Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.
An investment conference seen as a platform for the Crown Prince and dubbed the "Davos in the Desert", scheduled to take place in Riyadh next week, has been hit by a string of prominent cancellations over the controversy.
The chief executives of HSBC, Standard Chartered, Credit Suisse and JPMorgan Chase, as well as business barons from Ford and investment giant BlackRock, are among the latest to cancel plans to attend.
US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said that he still plans to attend the conference, but would "take (it)... into account" if more information came out.
Meanwhile, the controversy threw into doubt a US$400 million (S$550 million) deal the Saudi Public Investment Fund negotiated with Hollywood's most powerful talent agency as part of the Crown Prince's drive for a foothold in the entertainment industry.
Endeavor CEO Ari Emanuel said the Khashoggi case was "very, very concerning", although he stopped short of pronouncing that the deal was dead.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS