Latest Saudi version says body rolled up in a rug, taken out in a vehicle and handed to ‘local cooperator’ for disposal
Saudi Arabia is facing a growing chorus of incredulity over its belated explanation of how critic Jamal Khashoggi died inside its Istanbul consulate, as US President Donald Trump and other world leaders demanded answers and the whereabouts of his body.
Saudi Arabia said overnight Friday that Khashoggi, a critic of the country’s de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, had died in a fight inside the building.
On Sunday, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told Fox News the kingdom did not know where Khashoggi’s body was, despite admitting to the killing and calling it a “tremendous mistake.”
“The individuals who did this, did this outside the scope of their authority. There obviously was a tremendous mistake made, and what compounded the mistake was the attempt to try to cover up,” Jubeir said.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed on Sunday to reveal the “naked truth” over the killing of Khashoggi, saying that he would make a new statement on the case on Tuesday, the AFP news agency reported.
“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.
Turkish sources previously told Middle East Eye that they have evidence that Khashoggi was tortured, murdered and dismembered by a 15-man hit squad. It took Khashoggi, a Saudi national and US resident, seven minutes to die, the sources said.
In the latest Saudi version of what happened, a senior Saudi official who requested anonymity, said that following the journalist’s death someone had dressed in Khashoggi’s clothes to make it appear as if he had left the consulate, the Reuters news agency reported on Sunday.
Asked during a trip to Nevada if he was satisfied that Saudi officials had been fired over Khashoggi’s death, 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.”
Trump, who has forged close ties with Saudi Arabia and the crown prince, said he was concerned that it was unclear where the journalist’s body is.
In an interview with the Washington Post, Trump said that “obviously there’s been deception, and there’s been lies”.
Erdogan, who has not yet directly blamed Saudi Arabia, held a telephone call with Trump on Sunday where the two leaders agreed the Khashoggi case needed to be clarified “in all its aspects,” a Turkish presidential source said.
Germany called the Saudi explanation “inadequate” and questioned whether countries should sell arms to Saudi Arabia.
France and the European Union urged an in-depth investigation to find out what happened to the Washington Post columnist after he entered the consulate on 2 October for documents for his marriage.
Riyadh has provided no evidence on Saturday to support its account and made no official statement on what had become of Khashoggi’s body.
Saudi state media said King Salman had ordered the dismissal of five officials, including Saud al-Qahtani, a royal court adviser seen as the right-hand man to the crown prince, and deputy intelligence chief Ahmed al-Asiri.
‘Body rolled up in a rug’
A senior Saudi official has laid out a new version of the death in which a team of 15 Saudi nationals sent to confront Khashoggi had threatened him with being drugged and kidnapped and then killed him in a chokehold when he resisted.
According to the official, the Saudi team rolled up Khashoggi’s body in a rug, took it out in a consular vehicle and handed it to a “local cooperator” for disposal.
One of the operatives then donned Khashoggi’s clothes, eyeglasses and Apple watch and left through the back door of the consulate in an attempt to make it look like Khashoggi had walked out of the building, the senior Saudi official said.
Asked about allegations that Khashoggi had been tortured and beheaded, he said preliminary results of the investigation did not suggest that.
The official said Asiri put together a 15-member team from the intelligence and security forces to go to Istanbul, meet 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 al-Qahtani and who knew Jamal from the time they both worked at the embassy in London,” he said.
The official said Qahtani had signed off on one of his employees conducting the negotiations.
According to the plan, the team could hold 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.
Asked by Reuters why the government’s version of Khashoggi’s death kept changing, the official said the government 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 investigators are likely to find out what happened to the corpse “before long,” a senior Turkish official said earlier on Saturday.
The Khashoggi case has caused international outrage and frayed political and business ties between Western powers and US ally Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called for a full investigation into the killing and 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
– German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in a joint statement with her foreign minister
“We expect transparency from Saudi Arabia about the circumstances of his death… The information available about events in the Istanbul consulate is inadequate,” the Germans said.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas called into question the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia, while Canada’s Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said Riyadh’s explanations lacked consistency and credibility.
Trump’s comments about the Khashoggi incident in recent days have ranged from threatening Saudi Arabia with “very severe” consequences and warning of economic sanctions to more conciliatory remarks in which he has played up the country’s role as a US ally against Iran and “radical” groups, as well as a major purchaser of US arms.
He had earlier called the Saudi narrative of what happened to Khashoggi credible.
Trump said it was possible that the crown prince had been unaware of the circumstances around the death of 59-year-old Khashoggi.
Officials told Reuters in Turkey on Thursday that Khashoggi’s remains may have been dumped in Belgrad Forest adjacent to Istanbul, and at a rural location near the city of Yalova, 90km south of Istanbul,
Turkish sources say the authorities have an audio recording purportedly documenting Khashoggi’s murder inside the consulate.
Trump said no one from his administration has heard or seen audio or video recordings, or a transcript of what happened inside the consulate.
Saudi Arabia had previously denied that Khashoggi died in the consulate.
But the Saudi public prosecutor said on Saturday that a fight broke out between Khashoggi and people who met him in the building, leading to his death. Eighteen Saudi nationals have been arrested, the prosecutor said.
Turkish sources have told MEE that they are seeking the extradition of the 15 Saudis who arrived at the consulate on the day of Khashoggi’s death.
The sources said Ankara is extremely concerned that the suspects will be arrested and executed by Saudi authorities before Turkish investigators can have the opportunity to question them.
The dismissed official Qahtani, 40, rose to prominence after latching onto the crown prince, becoming a rare confidant in his inner circle.
Sources say Qahtani would regularly speak on behalf of the crown prince and has given direct orders to senior officials including in the security apparatus.
The New York Times reported on Saturday, citing US and Saudi officials, that Qahtani created the strategy behind the deployment of an online army to harass Khashoggi and other critics of the kingdom on Twitter.
People close to Khashoggi and the government said Qahtani had tried to lure the journalist back to Saudi Arabia after he moved to Washington a year ago fearing reprisals for his views.
On Saturday, Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi’s Turkish fiancée, tweeted in Arabic: “They have taken your body from this world, but your beautiful smile will stay in my world forever.”