Saudi Arabia has admitted journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered and blamed his killing on a “rogue operation”, giving a new account of an act that sparked a global outcry.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told Fox News “the murder” had been a “tremendous mistake” and denied the powerful crown prince had ordered it.
Jamal Khashoggi was last seen entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.
The Saudi government, under intense pressure to explain Jamal Khashoggi’s whereabouts, has offered conflicting accounts.
They initially said Jamal Khashoggi had left the consulate on October 2 – but on October 19 admitted for the first time he was dead, saying he had been killed in a fight. This claim met widespread skepticism.
Turkish officials believe the journalist, a prominent critic of the Saudi government, was murdered by a team of Saudi agents inside the building and say they have evidence to prove it.
Adel al-Jubeir’s comments, describing the incident as murder, are some of the most direct to come from a Saudi official.
He said: “We are determined to find out all the facts and we are determined to punish those who are responsible for this murder.”
“The individuals who did this did this outside the scope of their authority,” he added.
“There obviously was a tremendous mistake made, and what compounded the mistake was the attempt to try to cover up.”
Adel al-Jubeir also said that Saudi Arabia did not know where the body was and insisted the action had not been ordered by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, seen as the country’s most powerful figure.
“Even the senior leadership of our intelligence service was not aware of this,” he said, calling it a “rogue operation”.
However, Yeni Safak, a media outlet close to Turkey’s government, says it has information showing that the office of the crown prince received four phone calls from the consulate after the killing.
On October 21, Reuters reported it had spoken to a Saudi official who said Jamal Khashoggi had died in a chokehold after resisting attempts to return him to Saudi Arabia. His body was then rolled in a rug and given to a local “co-operator” to dispose of.
A Saudi operative then reportedly donned Jamal Khashoggi’s clothes and left the consulate.
Jamal Khashoggi was killed in a fight in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Saudi Arabia’s state TV reported quoting an initial probe.
According to the report, deputy intelligence chief Ahmad al-Assiri and Saud al-Qahtani, a senior aide to Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, were dismissed over the affair.
President Donald Trump said what had happened was “unacceptable” but that Saudi Arabia was a “great ally”.
This is the first time Saudi Arabia has admitted Jamal Khashoggi has died.
The acknowledgement follows two weeks of denials that the Saudi kingdom had any involvement in the disappearance of the prominent Saudi critic when he entered the consulate in Istanbul on October 2 to seek paperwork for his upcoming marriage.
Saudi Arabia had come under increased pressure to explain Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance after Turkish officials said he was deliberately killed inside the consulate, and his body dismembered.
On October 19, Turkish police widened their search from the consulate grounds to a nearby forest where unnamed officials believe his body may have been disposed of.
Observers are questioning whether Saudi Arabia’s Western allies will find the Saudis’ account of a “botched rendition” convincing – and whether it will persuade them not to take punitive action against Saudi Arabia.
A statement from the kingdom’s public prosecutor said a fight broke out between Jamal Khashoggi, who had fallen out of favor with the Saudi government, and people who met him in the consulate – ending with his death.
The investigations are still under way, the statement said, and 18 Saudi nationals have been arrested. The Saudi authorities have yet to give evidence to support this version of events.
State media said King Salman had ordered the sacking of two senior officials.
Saud al-Qahtani is a prominent member of the Saudi Royal Court and adviser to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Major-General Ahmed al-Assiri has acted as the top spokesman for Saudi Arabia about the war in Yemen.
King Salman has also reportedly ordered the formation of a ministerial committee, headed by Crown Prince Mohammed, to restructure the intelligence services.
Saudi Arabia said it had acted on information provided by Turkish authorities as part of its inquiry, investigating a number of suspects.
President Trump praised Saudi Arabia for acting quickly, and while he said sanctions were an option against the kingdom, he spoke of the possible effect such moves would have on the US economy. He said the arrests were an important “first step”.
Asked if he found Saudi Arabia’s version of events credible, the president replied: “I do.”
President Trump stressed the importance of Saudi Arabia as a counterbalance to Iran in the Middle East, and pushed back against the need for sanctions against the kingdom in light of the new information, talking about the effect of such a move on the US economy.
Donald Trump spoke of his visit to Saudi Arabia – his first trip abroad as president – and the $110 billion arms deal he signed with the kingdom.
He said: “I’d rather keep the million jobs [in the US] and find another solution.”
Earlier this week President Trump said there would be “very severe” consequences if Saudi Arabia was proved to have killed Jamal Khashoggi.
The White House said in a separate statement the US was “deeply saddened” to hear confirmation of Jamal Khashoggi’s death.
Turkish officials believe Jamal Khashoggi was killed by a team of Saudi agents inside the consulate, and his body then removed – and they say they have video and audio evidence to back this up.
Saudi Arabia has denied this, and initially insisted Jamal Khashoggi had freely left the embassy.
Turkish newspapers with close links to the government have published gruesome details of the alleged audio, including what they describe as the sounds of screams and Jamal Khashoggi being interrogated and tortured.
Turkish media say they have identified a 15-member team of suspected Saudi agents who flew into and out of Istanbul on the day of the disappearance.
Speaking to reporters after a phone call with King Salman of Saudi Arabia, President Donald Trump has suggested “rogue killers” could be behind the disappearance of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey.
He said the Saudi king had firmly denied knowing what had happened to Jamal Khashoggi.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is flying to Saudi Arabia immediately.
Turkish police have, for the first time, been inside the Saudi consulate where Jamal Khashoggi was last seen.
They entered the building around an hour after a group of Saudi officials.
Turkish officials believe Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in the consulate by Saudi agents nearly two weeks ago but Riyadh has always strongly denied this.
Meanwhile, unconfirmed media reports suggest Saudi Arabia is preparing to admit that Jamal Khashoggi died as a result of an interrogation that went wrong and that the original intention had been to abduct him.
Arabic channel Al-Jazeera quotes Turkey’s attorney-general’s office as saying it has found evidence to back claims that Jamal Khashoggi was killed inside the mission.
The issue has strained Saudi Arabia’s ties with its closest Western allies.
President Trump addressed snatched questions from reporters over helicopter engine noise at the White House, describing King Salman’s denial as “very, very strong”.
“It sounded to me like maybe these could have been rogue killers,” he added.
President Trump provided no evidence to back his comment.
Last week, the president threatened Saudi Arabia with “severe punishment” if it emerged that Jamal Khashoggi had been killed inside the consulate but ruled out halting big military contracts with Riyadh.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Saudi Arabia will be followed by a stop in Turkey.
Diplomatic pressure is growing on the Saudis to give a fuller explanation.
On October 15, King Salman ordered an investigation into the case.
“The king has ordered the public prosecutor to open an internal investigation into the Khashoggi matter based on the information from the joint team in Istanbul,” a Saudi official quoted by Reuters said.
The official said the prosecutor had been instructed to work quickly.
Last week, Turkey accepted a Saudi proposal to form a joint working group to investigate Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance.
Investigators entered the consulate in Istanbul on October 15 – first a Saudi team followed roughly an hour later by Turkish forensic police.
Turkish diplomatic sources had said the consulate would be searched by a joint Turkish-Saudi team.
A group of cleaners was seen entering earlier.
Saudi Arabia agreed last week to allow Turkish officials to conduct a search but insisted it would only be a superficial “visual” inspection.
Turkey rejected that offer. The Sabah daily newspaper said investigators had wanted to search the building with luminol, a chemical which shows up any traces of blood. It is not clear whether that happened.
King Salman and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke by telephone on October 14, officials said, and stressed the importance of the two countries working together on the case.
Pressure is growing on Saudi Arabia to explain what happened to Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met King Salman in Riyadh.
Jamal Khashoggi was last seen entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2.
Turkish officials believe the journalist was murdered by Saudi agents but the Saudis have denied this.
However, US media are reporting that the Saudis may be preparing to admit that Jamal Khashoggi died as a result of an interrogation that went wrong.
Overnight, Turkish police completed a search of the consulate after being admitted by Saudi authorities.
Mike Pompeo and King Salman have now met in Riyadh.
While much of what was discussed during has yet to be announced, the US State Department said that Mike Pompeo had used the time to thank the king for his “commitment to a thorough, transparent investigation” into Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance.
The secretary of state was also expected to seek further clarification over a conversation between the king and President Donald Trump on October 15.
Tweeting earlier about the call, President Trump said: “Just spoke to the King of Saudi Arabia who denies any knowledge of whatever may have happened “to our Saudi Arabian citizen.” He said that they are working closely with Turkey to find answer. I am immediately sending our Secretary of State to meet with King!”
The president later told reporters: “The denial was very, very strong. It sounded to me like maybe these could have been rogue killers. Who knows?”
There is a lot at stake given the strength of Saudi-US ties. President Trump has already ruled out cancelling a lucrative arms deal, although he did threaten “severe punishment” if the kingdom were found to be responsible for the death.
On October 15, King Salman ordered an investigation into the missing journalist. Saudi statements up to now have dismissed allegations of a killing as “baseless” and “lies”.
Mike Pompeo is also expected to meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during his day in Riyadh. The secretary of state may then head to Turkey.
The New York Times and on CNN reported, quoting unnamed sources, that Saudi Arabia would acknowledge that Jamal Khashoggi’s death was the result of an interrogation that went wrong and the intention had been only to abduct him from Turkey.
This may explain in part President Trump’s “rogue killers” line.
Who such killers could be and how it fits into reports of a Saudi team being dispatched to the consulate before Jamal Khashoggi’s arrival will presumably need to covered.
Jamal Khashoggi’s family in Saudi Arabia issued a statement calling for an “independent and impartial international commission”.