Saudi Arabia dismissed on Saturday accusations that Jamal Khashoggi was ordered murdered by a hit squad inside its Istanbul consulate as “lies and baseless allegations”, as Riyadh and Ankara spar over the missing journalist’s fate.
As the controversy intensified, the Washington Post reported Turkish officials had recordings made from inside the building that allegedly proved their claims Khashoggi was tortured and killed at the consulate.
A Saudi delegation arrived in Turkey for talks, officials said on Friday, with the case risking fragile relations between the two.
In the first Saudi ministerial reaction to the accusations about Khashoggi’s killing, Interior Minister Prince Abdel Aziz bin Saud bin Nayef said that “what has been circulating about orders to kill him are lies and baseless allegations”.
The Kingdom “is committed to its principles, rules and traditions and is in compliance with international laws and conventions”, he added according to the official Saudi Press Agency.
The case risks damaging the image of the kingdom and its ties to the West as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman promotes a reform drive at home.
Big names from media and business have already cancelled appearances at a major conference in Riyadh this month.
Saudi journalist and Washington Post contributor Khashoggi vanished on October 2 after entering the consulate to obtain documents for his upcoming marriage.
Turkish government sources say police believe he was killed but Riyadh denies that.
– Did he leave? –
The Saudi delegation, whose composition was not immediately clear, is expected to meet with Turkish officials in Ankara at the weekend, state media said on Friday.
It is likely that they will take part in a joint working group on the case, whose creation was announced Thursday by Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin following a request by Saudi Arabia.
A Saudi official source quoted by SPA news agency said it was “a positive move” Turkey had agreed to the creation of what it described as a “joint action team” over Khashoggi’s disappearance.
The Turkish leadership has so far stopped short of accusing Saudi Arabia, although pro-government media have published sensational claims, including that an “assassination team” was sent to Istanbul to kill Khashoggi.
In a rare public comment on the case by a Saudi official, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Britain, Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf al Saud, told the BBC that Riyadh was “concerned” about its citizen.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has challenged Saudi Arabia to provide CCTV images to back up its account that Khashoggi left the consulate safely.
Khashoggi, a Saudi national living in the US since September 2017 fearing arrest, criticised some policies of Mohammed bin Salman and Riyadh’s intervention in the war in Yemen.
The Washington Post reported the Turkish government has told US officials it has audio and video recordings which show how Khashoggi was “interrogated, tortured and then murdered” inside the consulate before his body was dismembered.
Turkish officials contacted by AFP refused to comment on the veracity of the report.
– ‘Visual’ search only –
Ankara and Riyadh have been on opposing sides in the region on key issues, including the ousting of the Islamist Egyptian government and last year’s Saudi-led blockade on Turkey’s regional ally Qatar. Yet as key Sunni Muslim powers they have maintained cordial relations.
But despite Riyadh’s agreement on Tuesday to let Turkish authorities search the Saudi mission, the probe has not yet taken place. The two sides have been in intense contacts to resolve the issue, local media reported.
Pro-government Turkish newspaper Sabah said the search of the consulate had not yet happened because Saudi officials would only allow a superficial “visual” probe.
The Turkish side did not accept the offer and Sabah said officials wanted to search the building with luminol, a chemical that allows forensic teams to discover blood traces.
Officers were looking into sound recordings sent from a smart watch that Khashoggi was wearing when he was inside the consulate to a mobile phone which he gave to his Turkish fiancee waiting outside, Hatice Cengiz.
Milliyet daily reported that “arguments and shouting” could be heard on the recordings, but Sozcu newspaper said only “some conversations” could be heard.
– ‘Chilling effect’ –
Bloomberg, the Financial Times, The Economist and The New York Times withdrew as media sponsors from the second Future Investment Initiative to be held between October 23-25 in Riyadh dubbed “Davos in the Desert” after the World Economic Forum in the Swiss resort.
The CEO of ride-hailing app Uber, Dara Khosrowshahi, said that he will no longer be attending the event unless “a substantially different set of facts emerges”.
British entrepreneur Richard Branson said he would suspend two directorships linked to tourism projects in Saudi Arabia over concerns about the missing journalist.
Amnesty International demanded the Saudi authorities reveal what happened to Khashoggi as it said Riyadh was “responsible at a minimum for enforced disappearance”.