Sunday 17 November 2019

Journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed in a "fistfight" in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Kingdom claims

Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi (Hasan Jamali/AP)
Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi (Hasan Jamali/AP)
Turkish investigators at work (Emrah Gurel/AP)
Independent.ie Newsdesk

Independent.ie Newsdesk

Journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed in a "fistfight" in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the kingdom has said as it admitted the writer had been slain at the diplomatic post for the first time.

Authorities said 18 Saudi suspects were in custody for his killing and intelligence officials had been fired.

The overnight announcements in Saudi state media came more than two weeks after Mr Khashoggi, 59, entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul for paperwork required to marry his Turkish fiancee, and never came out.

Since his disappearance, the kingdom had rejected Turkish fears he was killed and dismembered there as "baseless".

However growing international pressure and comments by US officials up to Donald Trump appears to have forced the kingdom to acknowledge the slaying.

While it fired officials close to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom stopped short of implicating the heir-apparent of the world's largest oil exporter.

King Salman, his father, appointed him to lead a committee that will restructure the kingdom's intelligence services after Mr Khashoggi's slaying.

No major decisions in Saudi Arabia are made outside of the ultraconservative kingdom's ruling Al Saud family.

It also offered a far different version of events than those given by Turkish officials, who have said an "assassination squad" from the kingdom including an official from Prince Mohammed's entourage and an "autopsy expert" flew in ahead of time and laid in wait for Mr Khashoggi at the consulate.

Beyond its statements attributed to anonymous officials, Saudi Arabia offered no evidence to support its claims.

In a statement Friday night, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the US will closely follow international investigations into Mr Khashoggi's death and will advocate for justice that is "timely, transparent and in accordance with all due process".

Mr Trump meanwhile called the Saudi announcement a "good first step", but said what happened Mr Khashoggi was "unacceptable".

He also said that he wanted to speak to the kingdom's crown prince before any steps are taken.

The announcements came in a flurry of statements carried by the state-run Saudi Press Agency early Saturday morning.

"Preliminary investigations conducted by the Public Prosecution showed that the suspects had travelled to Istanbul to meet with the citizen Jamal Khashoggi as there were indications of the possibility of his returning back to the country," the statement rea.

There has been no indication Mr Khashoggi had immediate plans to return to the kingdom.

"Discussions took place with the citizen Jamal Khashoggi during his presence in the consulate of the kingdom in Istanbul by the suspects (that) did not go as required and developed in a negative way, leading to a fistfight... The brawl led to his death and their attempt to conceal and hide what happened."

The Saudi statements did not identify the 18 Saudis being held by authorities.

"The kingdom expresses its deep regret at the painful developments that have taken place and stresses the commitment of the authorities in the kingdom to bring the facts to the public opinion, to hold all those involved accountable and bring them to justice," the statement said.

In statements that followed, the kingdom announced the firing of four top intelligence officials, including Major General Ahmed bin Hassan Assiri, a one-time spokesman for the Saudi military's campaign in Yemen who later became a confidant of Prince Mohammed.

Separately fired was Saud Qahtani, a powerful adviser to Prince Mohammed who led Saudi efforts to isolate Qatar amid a boycott of the country by the kingdom and three other Arab nations as part of a political dispute.

On Twitter, where Mr Qahtani had launched vitriolic attacks against those he saw as the kingdom's enemies, he thanked the Saudi government for the "great opportunity they gave me to serve my country all those years".

"I will remain a loyal servant to my country for all times," he wrote.

Mr Assiri had no immediate comment.

On Wednesday, the Turkish pro-government newspaper Yeni Safak, citing what it described as an audio recording of Mr Khashoggi's slaying, said the squad immediately accosted the journalist after he entered the consulate, cutting off his fingers and later decapitating him.

On Thursday, a leaked surveillance photo put Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, a member of Prince Mohammed's entourage on trips to the US, France and Spain this year, at the consulate just ahead of Mr Khashoggi's arrival.

Turkish crime scene investigators this week searched the Saudi Consulate building in Istanbul and the nearby residence of the Saudi consul general, and came out carrying bags and boxes.

On Friday, investigators questioned staff and explored whether his remains could have been dumped outside Istanbul after his suspected killing, Turkish media and a security official said.

Mr Khashoggi, a prominent journalist and royal court insider for decades in Saudi Arabia, had written columns critical of Prince Mohammed and the kingdom's direction while living in self-imposed exile in the US.

Mr Trump has said that the consequences for the Saudis "will have to be very severe" if they are found to have killed him, but has insisted that more facts must be known before making any judgements.

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