WASHINGTON/ISTANBUL (Reuters) – The United States on Thursday gave Saudi Arabia more time to investigate the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi as Turkish investigators searched Riyadh’s consulate in Istanbul for a second time in a hunt for clues.
U.S. President Donald Trump met for less than an hour with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who gave the president an update on his talks this week with Saudi and Turkish officials about the Khashoggi case amid concern that the journalist was killed in the consulate after entering it on Oct. 2.
Referring to the Saudis, Pompeo said he told Trump that “we ought to give them a few more days to complete” their investigation in order to get a full understanding of what happened “at which point we can make decisions about how – or if – the United States should respond to the incident surrounding Mr. Khashoggi.”
“I think it’s important for us all to remember, too – we have a long, since 1932, a long strategic relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” Pompeo told reporters after meeting with Trump, also calling Saudi Arabia “an important counterterrorism partner.”
Turkish officials have said they believe Saudi journalist Khashoggi – a U.S. resident and Washington Post columnist who was a strong critic of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – was murdered at the consulate and his body chopped up and removed.
Shortly after the Trump-Pompeo meeting, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced he would not be attending a high-profile business conference in Saudi Arabia.
“Just met with @realDonaldTrump and @SecPompeo and we have decided, I will not be participating in the Future Investment Initiative summit in Saudi Arabia,” Mnuchin wrote on Twitter.
Pompeo told reporters that he made clear to the Saudis in his visit to Riyadh that “we take this matter with respect to Mr. Khashoggi very seriously.”
“They made clear to me that they too understand the serious nature of the disappearance of Mr. Khashoggi. They also assured me that they will conduct a complete, thorough investigation of all of the facts surrounding Mr. Khashoggi and that they will do so in a timely fashion,” Pompeo added.
Turkish investigators left the Saudi consulate in Istanbul early on Thursday after searching the building and consular vehicles, a Reuters witness said. They used bright lights to illuminate the garden. Earlier, they spent nearly nine hours in the Saudi consul’s residence along with Saudi investigators.
The Turkish search, which used a drone, included the roof and garage.
Khashoggi had gone to the consulate seeking documents for his planned upcoming marriage and has not been seen since. Saudi Arabia has denied involvement in the disappearance.
The incident has caused a global outcry but also poses a dilemma for the United States and other Western nations, which have lucrative business dealings with the authoritarian kingdom and count on it as a leading Middle East ally and opponent of their common enemy Iran.
Saudi Arabia also wields significant influence as the world’s top oil exporter.
How Western allies deal with Riyadh will hinge on the extent to which they believe responsibility for Khashoggi’s disappearance lies with Prince Mohammed and the Saudi authorities.
Trump has shown no willingness to mete out harsh punishment to Saudi Arabia. He said on Wednesday he did not want to abandon Saudi Arabia and needed to see evidence of any role by Riyadh.
Trump, who has forged closer ties with Saudi Arabia and the 33-year-old prince in an effort to counter Iranian influence in the Middle East, has speculated without providing evidence that “rogue killers” could be responsible.
U.N. INVESTIGATION URGED
Four prominent Western rights groups – Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders – urged Turkey to ask the United Nations to investigate the disappearance of Khashoggi.
“U.N. involvement is the best guarantee against a Saudi whitewash or attempts by other governments to sweep the issue under the carpet to preserve lucrative business ties with Riyadh,” said Robert Mahoney, deputy executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.
European governments have expressed concern about Khashoggi’s disappearance but face a similarly delicate situation.
Three senior ministers said they were pulling out of the high-profile investment conference in Riyadh later this month, joining a list of international officials and business executives to boycott the event.
French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire cited concerns about the Khashoggi matter. British trade minister Liam Fox followed suit, with his spokesman saying: “Those bearing responsibility for his disappearance must be held to account.”
Dutch Finance Minister Wopka Hoekstra also scrapped plans to attend while the Dutch government canceled a trade mission to Saudi Arabia next month.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow did not have enough information about Khashoggi’s disappearance to justify harming ties with Riyadh. His government would wait for details, Putin told a forum in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.
The New York Times reported on Wednesday that U.S. intelligence officials are increasingly convinced of Prince Mohammed’s culpability in Khashoggi’s killing but have not yet been able to collect direct evidence. Saudi authorities did not immediately comment on the report.
Turkish sources have said the authorities have an audio recording indicating Khashoggi was killed inside the consulate.
The pro-government Yeni Safak newspaper published on Wednesday what it said were details from audio recordings that purported to document Khashoggi’s torture and interrogation. Khashoggi’s torturers severed his fingers during the interrogation and later beheaded and dismembered him, it said.
Reuters has been unable to confirm the report with Turkish officials.
Turkish pro-government newspaper Sabah reported last week that investigators had identified a 15-member Saudi intelligence team that arrived in Istanbul on diplomatic passports hours before Khashoggi disappeared.
Prince Mohammed has painted himself as the face of a new, vibrant Saudi Arabia but has faced criticism including over the arrest of women activists, a diplomatic dispute with Canada and Riyadh’s involvement in the Yemen war in which air strikes by a Saudi-led coalition have killed thousands of civilians.
Additional reporting by Umit Ozdal, Yesim Dikmen and Tuvan Gumrukcu in Istanbul, John Irish and Sudip Kar-Gupta in Paris, Bart Meijer in Amsterdam, Alistair Smout and Kylie MacLellan in London and Susan Heavey in Washington; Writing by Daren Butler and Stephen Kalin; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Will Dunham