ISTANBUL (REUTERS) – United States President Donald Trump said on Saturday (Oct 20) that he is not satisfied with Saudi Arabia’s handling of the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, and said questions remain unanswered.
Saudi Arabia said early on Saturday that Mr Khashoggi, a critic of the country’s de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, had died in a fight inside its consulate in the Turkish city.
Riyadh provided no evidence to support its account, which marked a reversal of an initial statement that Mr Khashoggi had left the consulate the same day he entered on Oct 2 to get documents for his upcoming marriage.
Asked during a trip to Nevada if he was satisfied that Saudi officials had been fired over Mr Khashoggi’s death, Mr Trump said: “No, I am not satisfied until we find the answer. But it was a big first step, it was a good first step. But I want to get to the answer.”
Turkish officials suspect Mr Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist, was killed inside the consulate by a team of Saudi agents and his body cut up.
Mr Trump said it was possible that Prince Mohammed had been unaware of the circumstances around the death of Mr Khashoggi, a Saudi national and US resident.
Mr Trump said no one seems to know where the journalist’s body is, adding that no one from his administration has seen video or a transcript of what happened inside the consulate.
While Middle Eastern allies closed ranks around the kingdom, Western reaction to the Saudi narrative varied.
Mr Trump, who has forged close ties with the world’s top oil exporter and maintains strong relations with the crown prince, had initially said the Saudi account was credible and marked an important step.
He said he would speak with the crown prince. But Mr Trump again emphasised Riyadh’s role in countering common foe Iran and the importance of US arms sales to Saudi Arabia for American jobs, suggesting he is unwilling to open a big rift with the Saudi leadership.
Germany, France and Canada on Saturday called Saudi Arabia’s explanation of how Mr Khashoggi died incomplete.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in a joint statement with her foreign minister, said the Saudi account was not enough.
“We expect transparency from Saudi Arabia about the circumstances of his death... The information available about events in the Istanbul consulate is inadequate,” the statement said.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas called into question the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called for an in-depth investigation of the Khashoggi case.
“The confirmation of Mr Jamal Khashoggi’s death is a first step toward the establishment of the truth. However, many questions remain unanswered,” he said in a statement.
Canada condemned Saudi Arabia’s account as inconsistent and not credible, calling for a “thorough” investigation.
“Canada condemns the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has confirmed took place in its consulate in Istanbul,” Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said in a statement. “The explanations offered to date lack consistency and credibility.”
The Saudi statement made no mention of what had become of the body of Mr Khashoggi, a Saudi national who was a US resident.
Saudi Arabia had until now strenuously denied that Mr Khashoggi had died in the consulate.
But the Saudi public prosecutor said on Saturday that a fight broke out between Mr Khashoggi and people who met him in the building, leading to his death.
Eighteen Saudi nationals had been arrested, the prosecutor said.
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.”
Mr Khashoggi’s Turkish fiancee, Ms Hatice Cengiz, tweeted in Arabic: “They have taken your body from this world, but your beautiful smile will stay in my world forever.”
Turkish investigators, who have been combing a forest and other sites outside Istanbul, are likely to find out what happened to his body “before long”, a senior Turkish official told Reuters on Saturday.
Saudi state media said King Salman had ordered the dismissal of five officials, including Mr Saud al-Qahtani, a royal court adviser seen as the right-hand man to Prince Mohammed, and deputy intelligence chief Ahmed Asiri.
Some US lawmakers were unconvinced by the Saudi account.
“To say that I am sceptical of the new Saudi narrative about Mr Khashoggi is an understatement,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said.
Another Republican Senator, Mr Marco Rubio, called for an investigation and sanctions imposed against those responsible.
Turkish sources say the authorities have an audio recording purportedly documenting Mr Khashoggi’s murder inside the consulate. Pro-government newspaper Yeni Safak, citing the audio, said his torturers cut off his fingers during an interrogation and later beheaded him.
A group of 15 Saudi nationals arrived in Istanbul in two planes and entered the consulate on the same day Mr Khashoggi was there and later left the country, a security source told Reuters.
The crisis prompted the king to intervene, five sources with links to the Saudi royal family told Reuters.
The king also ordered a restructuring of the intelligence service, to be led by Prince Mohammed, suggesting the prince still retained wide-ranging authority.
Saudi Arabia’s justice minister said in a statement issued by state news agency SPA on Saturday that Mr Khashoggi’s case will be looked at by Saudi courts when all procedures are complete.
Before the Saudi announcements, Mr Trump had said he might consider sanctions against the kingdom.
For other Western allies, a main question will be whether they believe Prince Mohammed, who has painted himself as a reformer, has any culpability. King Salman has handed the day-to-day running of Saudi Arabia to his son.
Britain said it was considering its next steps, while Australia said it had pulled out of a planned investment summit in Saudi Arabia in protest against the killing. Spain said it was dismayed by information from Riyadh.
Amnesty International said the Saudi explanation appeared to be a whitewash of “an appalling assassination”. The Saudi findings “marks an abysmal new low to Saudi Arabia’s human rights record”, its Middle East director said.
But regional allies – including Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates – issued statements in praise of the king.
The spokesman for Turkey’s ruling AK Party said it would not allow a “cover up”.
‘NO ORDERS’ TO KILL
The dismissed official Mr Qahtani, 40, rose to prominence after latching onto Prince Mohammed, becoming a rare confidant in his inner circle.
Sources say Mr Qahtani would regularly speak on behalf of the crown prince and has given direct orders to senior officials including in the security apparatus.
People close to Mr Khashoggi and the government said Mr Qahtani had tried to lure the journalist back to Saudi Arabia after he moved to Washington a year ago fearing reprisals for his views.
Another dismissed official, Mr Asiri, joined the Saudi military in 2002, according to Saudi media reports, serving as spokesman for a coalition backing Yemen’s ousted president after Prince Mohammed took Saudi Arabia into that country’s civil war in 2015. He was named deputy chief of foreign intelligence in 2017.
A Saudi official familiar with the Saudi investigation said the prince had no knowledge of the specific operation that resulted in Mr 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. There was a standing order to bring critics of the kingdom back to the country, he added.
The official said the whereabouts of Mr Khashoggi’s body were unclear after it was handed over to a local operator, but there was no sign of it at the consulate.