RIYADH/ISTANBUL (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in Riyadh on Tuesday to discuss the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi with the king and crown prince, after President Donald Trump speculated “rogue killers” may be responsible.
Overnight, Turkish crime scene investigators entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the last place Khashoggi was seen before vanishing on Oct. 2, for the first time and searched the premises for over nine hours, Reuters witnesses said.
During the search, CNN and the New York Times reported Saudi Arabia was preparing to acknowledge Khashoggi’s death in a botched interrogation, after denying for two weeks any role in his disappearance.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir and ambassador to Washington, Prince Khaled bin Salman, greeted Pompeo at the airport. He will meet King Salman and Jubeir before dinner with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, according to reporters traveling with him. He may go on to Turkey.
The case has strained U.S. ties with Riyadh, carefully cultivated by the president, and provoked an international outcry against the world’s top oil exporter, with media and business executives pulling out of an investment conference next week.
Khashoggi, a U.S. resident, Washington Post columnist and leading critic of Prince Mohammed, vanished after entering the consulate to get marriage documents. Turkish officials say they believe he was murdered there and his body removed.
Citing two unidentified sources, CNN reported on Monday that Saudi Arabia was preparing a report that would acknowledge Khashoggi was killed as the result of an interrogation gone wrong. The Saudi government, which until now has maintained that Khashoggi left the consulate soon after entering, could not be reached immediately for comment on the reports.
The New York Times, citing a person familiar with the Saudi plans, reported the crown prince had approved an interrogation or abduction of Khashoggi. The Saudi government, it said, would shield the prince by blaming an intelligence official for the bungled operation.
Turkish authorities have an audio recording indicating that Khashoggi was killed in the consulate, a Turkish official and a security source have told Reuters, and have shared evidence with countries including Saudi Arabia and the United States.
Some 10 Turkish investigators left the consulate before 5 am (0200 GMT), and a Turkish prosecutor departed around 1-1/2 hours later, followed shortly after by a Saudi team, witnesses said.
Forensic vehicles took away soil samples as well as a metal door from the garden, the Reuters witness said. A police dog was part of the search team.
“The Turkish crime scene investigators carried out searches in the consulate and took the things deemed necessary,” a senior Turkish official told Reuters, after earlier acknowledging the difficulty of collecting evidence 13 days after the alleged incident.
Trump has threatened “severe punishment” if it turns out Khashoggi was killed in the consulate, but ruled out cancelling arms deals worth tens of billions of dollars. European allies have urged accountability for those responsible.
Many members of the U.S. Congress, which has long had a testy relationship with Saudi Arabia, have issued strong criticism of the kingdom.
Saudi Arabia has said it would retaliate against any pressure or economic sanctions “with greater action,” and Arab allies rallied to support it.
Its currency, the riyal, rebounded early on Tuesday after falling to its lowest in two years over fears that foreign investment could shrink amid international pressure. The Saudi stock index was down 3 percent.
Khashoggi, a familiar face on Arab talk shows, moved to Washington last year fearing retribution for his criticism of Prince Mohammed, who has cracked down on dissent with arrests.
The consummate insider never shied away from criticizing Saudi policies but gained prominence in many circles, including as an adviser to former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal.
Members of Khashoggi’s family have called for an investigation.
“We are sadly and anxiously following the conflicting news regarding the fate of our father after losing contact with him two weeks ago,” they said on Monday.
“The strong moral and legal responsibility which our father instilled in us obliges us to call for the establishment of an independent and impartial international commission to inquire into the circumstances of his death.”
Khashoggi’s fiancee Hatice Cengiz, who was waiting outside the consulate the day he disappeared, tweeted a Koranic verse warning those who kill on purpose, with the hashtag “Jamal is the Martyr of the Word”.
A pro-government Turkish daily published preliminary evidence last week from investigators who it said had identified a 15-member Saudi intelligence team that arrived in Istanbul on diplomatic passports hours before Khashoggi disappeared.
One of the names matches a LinkedIn profile for a forensic expert who has worked at the Saudi Interior Ministry for 20 years. Other names and photos resembled officers in the Saudi military.
Additional reporting by Yesim Dikmen and Sarah Dadouch; Writing by Ece Toksabay, Daren Butler and Stephen Kalin, editing by Darren Schuettler, Sam Holmes, William Maclean