Dozens of Turkish and Saudi officials have entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to begin a joint investigation into the disappearance of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, nearly two weeks after he vanished from the facility.
The visit to the consulate came amid claims the Saudis could admit in a report that Mr Khashoggi was killed in the consulate during an interrogation and rendition attempt that went wrong. CNN cited an unnamed source as saying the Saudis would claim the operation was carried out “without clearance or transparency” and that those involved would be punished – although another source cautioned that Riyadh could change its version of events.
At the consulate, both the Saudis – arriving at the consulate first in black sedans – and their Turkish counterparts, some wearing vests identifying them as police officers, made their way past swarms of journalists and into the building as dusk fell.
The visit followed demands by Turkish officials for access to the site, which is protected by diplomatic protocols. The investigators came hours after a pair of cleaners with mops and rags arrived for undisclosed reasons.
The disappearance of Mr Khashoggi has sparked an international outcry, with Britain making clear that Saudi Arabia has questions to answer and US President Donald Trump dispatching secretary of state Mike Pompeo to Riyadh on Monday.
Mr Trump told reporters on Monday he had spoken to Saudi King Salman, father of the Crown Prince, and said “rogue killers” could have been behind Mr Khashoggi’s disappearance. Mr Trump, who has close personal ties with Saudi Arabia and made it his first foreign visit after his 2016 election, did not explain how such operatives could have used private jets linked to the Saudi government to fly to Turkey, or enter a diplomatic facility without official approval.
He later said he was aware of the CNN story but added “nobody knows” whether the alleged Saudi report was official.
In London, foreign minister Jeremy Hunt told his Turkish counterpart that the fate of Mr Khashoggi remains “deeply concerning” and a credible and thorough investigation was needed.
“We have been urging Saudi Arabia to cooperate fully with the investigation. There remain questions about the disappearance of Mr Khashoggi that only Saudi Arabia can answer,” Mr Hunt said after meeting Mevlut Cavusoglu in London.
Mr Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist, entered the Saudi consulate for routine paperwork on 2 October, and was never seen again. Hours before the 60-year-old’s scheduled consular visit, 15 Saudis – some of whom were later identified as security officials – arrived in Istanbul, leaving the country shortly after he disappeared, according to information published by Turkish media close to the government.
Turkish media have distributed what has been described as leaked security camera footage showing Mr Khashoggi entering the consulate followed by strange movements of vehicles. Unnamed Turkish and US officials have told media they believe Mr Khashoggi was murdered inside the consulate and his body disposed, possibly on the orders of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler.
One analyst described the mood inside Saudi Arabia as “grim,” with many shocked at how onetime international allies have seemingly turned against the country’s leadership.
“The Saudi government did not anticipate these consequences,” one Riyadh-based analyst told The Independent, speaking on condition they not be identified. “The Saudi leadership thinks these things can be wiped away. It was highly offensive for these Saudi leaders to be criticised in this way on the international level.”
Among the 15-man team that arrived ahead of Mr Khashoggi’s disappearance was the head of forensic medicine at the general security directorate in Riyadh, the Saudi capital.
It remains unclear whether the Saudi and Turkish officials involved in the joint investigation will conduct a forensics investigation, question consular staff, or examine other evidence.
Saudi leaders have been rattled by the response to the disappearance of Mr Khashoggi, a one-time regime insider who became a critic, especially of the Crown Prince and the three-year Saudi war in Yemen. Media and business leaders have cancelled their participation in an upcoming conference hosted by the Crown Prince. American, British, French, and German officials have all spoken out about the need for clarity over the fate of Mr Khashoggi.
On Sunday, the Saudi leadership began aggressively fighting back against the allegations, insisting it had nothing to do with Mr Khashoggi’s disappearance but without providing evidence of his departure from the consulate.
“It is shameful that the name of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been unfairly sullied when he is making courageous and unprecedented economic and social changes to better the lives of Saudi youth and women,” wrote Khalaf Ahmad al-Habtoor, a UAE businessman, in Arab News.