CAIRO (REUTERS, NYTIMES) - Saudi Arabia's foreign minister said on Tuesday (Nov 20) that claims, including by the CIA, that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman gave the order to kill journalist Jamal Khashoggi were false, according to an Arabic-language newspaper interview.
News outlets, including Reuters, reported the Central Intelligence Agency's finding over the weekend in a case that has sparked an international outcry against the world's top oil exporter.
This was the most definitive US assessment to date tying Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler directly to the killing and contradicted Saudi government assertions that he was not involved.
"We in the kingdom know that such allegations about the crown prince have no basis in truth and we categorically reject them, whether through leaks or not," Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir was quoted as saying in Saudi-owned Al Sharq Al Awsat newspaper in the first Saudi official comment on the CIA report.
"They are leaks that have not been officially announced, and I have noticed that they are based on an assessment, not conclusive evidence," he added.
A source familiar with the CIA's assessment said it was based largely on circumstantial evidence relating to the prince's central role in running the Saudi government.
Jubeir was also asked about comments by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that the kill order came from the highest level of the Saudi leadership but probably not King Salman, which has put the spotlight instead on the 33-year-old crown prince.
"We have already asked the Turkish authorities at the highest level about the meaning of these comments, and they confirmed to us categorically that the crown prince is not meant by these comments," he said.
"The leadership of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, represented by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques (the king) and the crown prince, is a red line, and we will not permit attempts to harm or undermine them," he added.
King Salman on Monday stood by his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, avoiding any mention of the international outrage towards the kingdom in his first public remarks.
The heightened scrutiny of Crown Prince Mohammed, 33, has caused speculation in some quarters that he could be pushed aside.
But in Saudi Arabia's absolute monarchy, only his father has the authority to do so and in Monday's remarks he showed no intention to sideline his son.
In his annual address to the Shura Council, the kingdom's advisory assembly, the 82-year-old monarch stuck to general statements on official Saudi policy, calling on the world to stop Iran's nuclear programme, press for political solutions to the wars in Syria and Yemen and keep up the fight against terrorism.
If the king made any reference to the aftermath of Khashoggi's killing, it was done obliquely.
He praised the country's public prosecutor, whose office is handling the official Saudi investigation into the killing.
Last week, the prosecutor's office said it had filed criminal charges against 11 Saudis for suspected involvement in the killing and that it was seeking the death penalty against five of them, usually carried out in Saudi Arabia by beheading.
"We affirm that this country will never deviate from the application of Allah's law without any distinction or delay," the king said. He also made a vague reference to governmental reforms to ensure that instructions are properly followed to "avoid any violations or mistakes."
Saudi Arabia has said that the operation that led to Khashoggi's death was carried out outside the chain of command.
Last month, Salman announced the formation of a committee charged with restructuring the intelligence apparatus to prevent similar problems from occurring in the future. Heading that committee is the crown prince.
Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributor and one-time royal insider who had been critical of the crown prince recently, was killed inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct 2.
Last week, after offering numerous contradictory explanations for Khashoggi's disappearance, Riyadh said he had been killed and his body dismembered when "negotiations" to convince him to return to Saudi Arabia failed.