Turkey searched the Saudi consulate in Istanbul for a second time overnight as part of a probe into the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, while the French and Dutch finance ministers pulled out of a Riyadh investment summit amid global criticism of the kingdom.
Turkish officials say they believe Khashoggi - a U.S. resident and Washington Post columnist critical of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman - was murdered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 and his body removed. Saudi Arabia has denied involvement in Khashoggi’s disappearance.
Trump, who has forged closer ties with Saudi Arabia and the 33-year-old crown prince in an effort to counter Iranian influence in the region, has appeared unwilling to distance himself too much from Riyadh. He has cited tens of billions of dollars in potential arms deals.
Other Western nations have expressed concern about Khashoggi’s disappearance, but face a similarly delicate situation in their dealings with the world’s top oil exporter. French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said on Thursday he had canceled his attendance at an investment conference in Riyadh next week, telling Public Senat TV: “The conditions are not right.” Dutch Finance Minister Wopka Hoekstra has also scrapped plans to attend, news agency ANP reported, while the Dutch government canceled a trade mission to Saudi Arabia next month.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said his plans to attend the Riyadh conference would be revisited on Thursday after U.S. officials have a chance to consult Pompeo. Britain’s Secretary of State for Trade Liam Fox’s plans to attend have not been confirmed, a spokesperson said.
Turkish crime scene investigators left the Saudi consulate early on Thursday after searching the building and consular vehicles, a Reuters witness said. They used bright lights to illuminate the garden.
Earlier, the investigators spent nearly nine hours in the Saudi consul’s residence, as did Saudi investigators. The Turkish team’s search included the roof and garage and the use of a drone.
Turkish sources have told Reuters the authorities have an audio recording indicating Khashoggi was killed inside the consulate. Trump said the United States has asked Turkey for any audio or video evidence. Turkey’s 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. The newspaper said Khashoggi’s torturers severed his fingers during the interrogation and later beheaded and dismembered him.
A New York Times report cited a senior Turkish official confirming those details. Two Turkish government officials contacted by Reuters declined to confirm the report. Turkey has not shared with the U.S. government or European allies graphic audio or video evidence, seven U.S. and European security officials have told Reuters. The United States and allies have collected some intelligence through their own sources and methods, which partly confirms news reports based on leaks of audio recordings, four of the sources said.
Turkish pro-government newspaper Sabah 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 name matches a LinkedIn profile for a forensic expert who has worked at the interior ministry for 20 years. Another is identified in a diplomatic directory from 2007 as a first secretary at the Saudi Embassy in London.
Other names and photos of the 15 resemble officers in the Saudi Army and Air Force, as identified by previous Saudi media reports and in one case a Facebook profile.
A New York Times report, citing witnesses and other records, linked four suspects to Prince Mohammed’s security detail.
Prince Mohammed has painted himself as the face of a new, vibrant Saudi Arabia, diversifying its economy away from reliance on oil and making some social changes. But he has faced criticism including over the arrest of women activists, a diplomatic row with Canada and Riyadh’s involvement in the Yemen war during which airstrikes by the coalition Saudi Arabia leads have killed civilians. Khashoggi, a royal insider who once advised former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal, never shied away from criticizing Saudi policies.
The Washington Post published a column it received from his assistant after he was reported missing in which Khashoggi condemns the crackdown on journalists by Arab governments and the failure of the international community to respond. “As a result, Arab governments have been given free rein to continue silencing the media at an increasing rate,” he wrote.