Saudi royal guards, intelligence officers, soldiers and an autopsy expert were part of a 15-member team from the kingdom that targeted missing writer Jamal Khashoggi, Turkish media said Thursday. The Washington Post contributor vanished last week while visiting the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
The reported details, coupled with more-direct comments from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, appear aimed at gradually pressuring Saudi Arabia to reveal what happened to Khashoggi, while also balancing Ankara’s need to maintain the kingdom’s investments in Turkey and relations on other issues.
In Washington, U.S. President Donald Trump expressed reservations over withholding American arm sales over the writer, even as prominent American lawmakers increasingly criticize Saudi Arabia — America’s longtime security ally in the region.
Turkish officials say they fear Saudi Arabia killed and dismembered Khashoggi, without offering evidence explaining why they believe that. Khashoggi contributed columns to the Post, including some critical of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Saudi Arabia, before going silent in recent days, called the allegation it abducted or harmed Khashoggi “baseless.” However, it too has offered no evidence to support its claim the writer simply walked out of its consulate and vanished despite his fiancée waiting outside for him.
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Information continues to trickle out through Turkish media about the 15-man Saudi team previously described as an “assassination squad.” These leaks, largely matching across Turkey’s state-run media and private Erdogan-linked outlets, likely come from the country’s security services as another means to pressure the kingdom over Khashoggi’s Oct. 2 disappearance.
The first plane of nine Saudis arrived from Riyadh around 3:30 a.m. that day, and included an individual described as a forensics official, according to the Sabah newspaper. One Turkish official, speaking on condition of anonymity to The Associated Press to discuss an ongoing police investigation, previously described that official as an “autopsy expert.”
The other six flew in on commercial flights, according to a list obtained by Sabah, which also published their names and faces. Local media described the Saudis being military and intelligence officers, as well as several “royal guards.”
Around the time Khashoggi entered the consulate, a second private plane from Riyadh took off for Istanbul. About two hours after he entered the consulate, video released by state media in Turkey shows several vehicles with diplomatic license plates, leave the consulate and drive some 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) away to the consul’s residence.
The Hurriyet newspaper and other media alleged that the consulate’s 28 local staff were given the day off because a “diplomats’ meeting” would be held there. The reports did not cite a source and there was no official confirmation.
By 7 p.m., six of the Saudis left by the newly arrived private plane, flying onto Cairo and remaining overnight until heading back to Riyadh, according to Sabah and other media reports. By 11 p.m., another seven left by the other private plane, heading to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, similarly remaining there overnight and then flying on to Riyadh the next day, according to reports. Two others flew out commercially, Sabah said.
While the reports provide nothing definitive, they darken the picture surrounding Khashoggi’s disappearance.
Erdogan was quoted by Turkish media on Thursday as telling journalists flying with him back home from a visit to Hungary that “we cannot remain silent to such an incident.”
“How is it possible for a consulate, an embassy not to have security camera systems? Is it possible for the Saudi Arabian consulate where the incident occurred not to have camera systems?” Erdogan asked. “If a bird flew, if a mosquito appeared, these systems would catch them and (I believe) they (the Saudis) would have the most advanced of systems.”
Meanwhile, Trump told reporters in the Oval Office that he has a call in to Khashoggi’s fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, who has appealed to the president and first lady Melania Trump for help.
Trump said he had spoken with the Saudis about what he called a “bad situation,” but he did not disclose details of his conversations. He also said the U.S. was working “very closely” with Turkey, “and I think we’ll get to the bottom of it.”
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said national security adviser John Bolton and presidential senior adviser Jared Kushner spoke on Tuesday to Crown Prince Mohammed about Khashoggi.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo then had a follow-up call with the crown prince to reiterate the U.S. request for information and a thorough, transparent investigation.
In an interview later Wednesday with “Fox News @ Night,” Trump said he wanted to find out what happened to Khashoggi but appeared reluctant to consider blocking arms sales, citing economic reasons.
“I think that would be hurting us,” Trump said. “We have jobs, we have a lot of things happening in this country. We have a country that’s doing probably better economically than it’s ever done before.”
“Part of that is what we’re doing with our defense systems and everybody’s wanting them,” he continued. “And frankly, I think that that would be a very, very tough pill to swallow for our country. I mean, you’re affecting us and, you know, they’re always quick to jump that way.”
On his first international trip as president, Trump visited Saudi Arabia and announced $110 billion in proposed arms sales. The administration also relies on Saudi support for its Middle East agenda to counter Iranian influence, fight extremism and support an expected peace plan between Israel and the Palestinians.
Khashoggi had gone to the consulate on Tuesday last week to get paperwork he needed for his upcoming marriage. His Turkish fiancee waited outside.
The Post reported Wednesday evening that U.S. intelligence intercepts outlined a Saudi plan to detain Khashoggi. The Post, citing anonymous U.S. officials familiar with the intelligence, said Prince Mohammed ordered an operation to lure Khashoggi from his home in Virginia, where he lived most recently, to Saudi Arabia and then detain him.