Germany and France on Saturday called Saudi Arabia’s explanation of how Jamal Khashoggi died in Istanbul incomplete, going further than U.S. President Donald Trump in pressing the kingdom over the journalist’s disappearance and death.
Saudi Arabia said early on Saturday that 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 Khashoggi had left the consulate the same day he entered on Oct. 2 to get documents for his upcoming marriage.
Turkish officials suspect Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist, was killed inside the consulate by a team of Saudi agents and his body cut up.
While Middle Eastern allies closed ranks around the kingdom, Western reaction to the Saudi narrative varied. U.S. President Donald Trump said it was credible.
By contrast, 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,” they 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.
The Saudi statement made no mention of what had become of body of Khashoggi, a Saudi national who was a U.S. resident.
Trump, who has forged close ties with the world’s top oil exporter and maintains strong relations with the crown prince,
said the Saudi account was credible and marked an important step.
“I think it’s a good first step, it’s a big step,” Trump said in Arizona. “Saudi Arabia has been a great ally. What happened is unacceptable.”
He said he would speak with the crown prince. But Trump again emphasized Riyadh’s role in countering common foe Iran and the importance of U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia for American jobs, suggesting he is unwilling to open a big rift with the Saudi leadership.
Saudi Arabia had until now strenuously denied that Khashoggi had 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 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.”
Khashoggi’s Turkish fiancée, 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 Saud al-Qahtani, a royal court adviser seen as the right-hand man to Prince Mohammed, and deputy intelligence chief Ahmed Asiri.
Some U.S. lawmakers were unconvinced by the Saudi account.
“To say that I am skeptical of the new Saudi narrative about Mr. Khashoggi is an understatement,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said.
Another Republican Senator, Marco Rubio, called for an investigation and sanctions imposed against those responsible.
Turkish sources say the authorities have an audio recording purportedly documenting 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 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 Khashoggi’s case will be looked at by Saudi courts when all procedures are complete.
Before the Saudi announcements, 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 had 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 at 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 Qahtani, 40, rose to prominence after latching onto Prince Mohammed, 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.
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.
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 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 Khashoggi’s body were unclear after it was handed over to a local operator but there was no sign of it at the consulate. (Reuters)