Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan. (Source: Reuters)
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan urged Saudi Arabia on Friday to disclose who ordered the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, as well as the location of his body, heightening international pressure on the kingdom to come clean on the case.
Erdogan said Turkey had more information than it had shared so far about the killing of Khashoggi, a prominent US-based critic of powerful Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, that has pitched the world’s top oil exporter and pivotal Middle East strategic partner of the West into a serious crisis.
The kingdom, Erdogan added, also must reveal the identity of the “local cooperator” whom Saudi officials earlier said had taken charge of Khashoggi’s body from Saudi agents after his killing inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2.
Saudi Arabia’s public prosecutor said on Thursday the killing of Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist, was premeditated, reversing a previous official statement that it happened accidentally during a tussle in the consulate.
The kingdom’s shifting explanations of what happened to Khashoggi when he entered the consulate to get papers for his divorce have stirred scepticism and calls for Saudi transparency to determine who was ultimately responsible for the murder.
“Who gave this order?” Erdogan said in a speech to members of his AK Party in Ankara. “Who gave the order for 15 people to come to Turkey?” he said, referring to a 15-man Saudi security team Turkey said flew into Istanbul hours before the killing.
Saudi officials initially denied having anything to do with Khashoggi’s disappearance after he entered the consulate, before announcing that an internal inquiry suggested he was killed by mistake in a botched operation to return him to the kingdom.
Riyadh says 18 people have been arrested and five senior government officials have been sacked as part of the investigation. Prince Mohammed, Riyadh’s de facto ruler who casts himself as a reformer, has said the killers will be brought to justice.
Erdogan said he had spoken with Prince Mohammed. “I also told the crown prince. I said, ‘You know how to make people talk. Whatever happened between these 18 people, this dodgy business is among them. If you are determined to lift suspicion, then the key point of our cooperation is these 18 people.'”
WEST MULLS REPERCUSSIONS
How Western allies deal with Riyadh will hinge on the extent to which they believe responsibility for Khashoggi’s death lies directly with Prince Mohammed and the Saudi authorities.
The stakes are high. Saudi Arabia is the lynchpin of a US-backed regional alliance against Iran but the outcry over the murder has strained Riyadh’s relations with the West. Dozens of Western officials, bankers and executives boycotted a major investment conference in Riyadh this week.
Erdogan also said Saudi Arabia’s public prosecutor was due in Istanbul on Sunday to meets its regional chief prosecutor.
“Of course, we have other information; documents, but there is no need to be too hasty,” said Erdogan, who previously described Khashoggi’s demise as a “savage killing” and demanded Riyadh punish those responsible, no matter how highly placed.
On Thursday, Saudi state television quoted the Saudi public prosecutor as saying the killing had been planned in advance and that suspects were being interrogated on the basis of information provided by a joint Saudi-Turkish task force.
Turkish officials suspect Saudi security agents killed Khashoggi, 59, inside the consulate and dismembered his body. Turkish sources say authorities have an audio recording purportedly documenting the murder.
Pro-government Turkish newspaper Yeni Safak, citing the audio, reported that Saudi agents cut off his fingers during an interrogation and later beheaded him.
US CIA Director Gina Haspel heard an audio of the killing during a visit to Turkey this week, sources told Reuters, and she briefed President Donald Trump about Turkey’s findings and her discussions after her return to Washington on Thursday.
It remains unclear what can be heard in the audio. Officials from the CIA and Turkish intelligence declined to comment.
However, a European security source who was briefed by people who listened to the audio said of the recording: “There was an argument at the beginning, they insulted each other, it then developed. (Saudis said) ‘Let’s give a lesson to him’.”
Among various versions of what happened to Khashoggi given by Riyadh, Saudi officials had said the columnist was either killed in a fight inside the consulate or died in a chokehold when he resisted being drugged and abducted.
Khashoggi did not appear to believe he was going to die, the European security source said.
In Moscow, the Kremlin said on Friday that Russia has no reason to doubt the statements of the Saudi king and crown prince that the royal family was not involved in the murder.
Saudi King Salman assured Russian President Vladimir Putin by phone on Thursday that Saudi authorities were resolved to hold the guilty parties accountable and ensure “they receive their punishment”, the official Saudi press agency SPA said.