US officials deeply skeptical of Saudi claim Khashoggi died in ‘fistfight’

US officials deeply skeptical of Saudi claim Khashoggi died in ‘fistfight’

Sen. Lindsey Graham expresses incredulity at kingdom’s account of consulate death; Rep. Adam Schiff: If administration won’t act, Congress must; Turkey vows to find ‘all details’

In this photo from February 1, 2015, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi speaks at a press conference in Manama, Bahrain. (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali, File)
In this photo from February 1, 2015, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi speaks at a press conference in Manama, Bahrain. (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali, File)

While US President Donald Trump has accepted as credible Saudi Arabia’s assertion that dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi died unintentionally as a result of a “fistfight” inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, others have found the claim highly dubious.

Unnamed American officials told CNN early Saturday that the US resident — whose mysterious disappearance triggered an international crisis, with Turkish officials accusing Saudi Arabia of a state-sponsored killing and dismembering his body — could not have been killed without the knowledge of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Senator Lindsey Graham, an ally of Trump, tweeted: “To say that I am skeptical of the new Saudi narrative about Mr. Khashoggi is an understatement.”

Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff ridiculed the notion that “Khashoggi was killed while brawling with 15 men dispatched from Saudi Arabia… If he was fighting with those sent to capture or kill him, it was for his life.” He added that if the administration was unwilling to act, “Congress must.”

Former MI6 chief John Sawers, meanwhile, told the BBC it was “very likely” that bin Salman had ordered the killing, citing information from Turkey and senior British sources.

He added that such an order was “a step too far — one that the UK, the EU and the US are going to have to respond to.”

Reporters with Borders said Saturday the international community must keep up the pressure on Saudi Arabia, stressing Riyadh had to be held to account for the death of Khashoggi and the imprisonment of other journalists.

Representative Adam Schiff (Democrat-California) speaks during an interview with Mike Allen of Axios in Washington, DC, on January 31, 2018. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images/AFP)

“Any attempt to get rid of the pressure on Saudi Arabia and to accept a compromise policy would result in giving a ‘license to kill’ to a Kingdom that puts in jail, lashes, kidnaps and even kills journalists who dare to investigate and launch debates,” Christophe Deloire, Secretary General of the Paris-based media rights watchdog tweeted.

“After the recognition of Khashoggi’s death, we expect a determined, constant and powerful pressure to be kept on Saudi Arabia in order to get the whole truth on the case and the release of Saudi Arabian journalists (who have) been condemned to crazy and horrible sentences,” he added.

Turkey vowed Saturday to uncover all details of Khashoggis’ death.

“Turkey will reveal whatever had happened. Nobody should ever doubt about it,” said Omer Celik, spokesman for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), the Anadolu news agency reported.

Celik said it was Turkey’s “debt of honour” to reveal what happened. “We are not accusing anyone in advance but we don’t accept anything to remain covered (up),” he said.

Khashoggi, 59, a contributor to the Washington Post newspaper and a critic of the kingdom, had been living in the United States since 2017. The overnight announcements in Saudi state media came more than two weeks after he entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul for paperwork required to marry his Turkish fiancée, and never came out.

Pro-government Turkish media have repeatedly claimed that Khashoggi was tortured and decapitated by a Saudi hit squad inside the diplomatic mission, although Turkey has yet to divulge details about the investigation.

After earlier denials, Saudi Arabia admitted early Saturday that Khashoggi, an insider turned critic of the regime, had been killed inside its Istanbul consulate in what it described as a “brawl.”

It said 18 Saudi suspects were in custody and intelligence officials had been fired.

Turkish forensics and police officers arrive to the Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul on October 15, 2018, to search the premises in the investigation over missing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. (OZAN KOSE / AFP)

The kingdom offered a far different version of events than those given by Turkish officials, who have said an “assassination squad” from the kingdom including an official from Prince Mohammed’s entourage and an “autopsy expert” flew in ahead of time and laid in wait for Khashoggi at the consulate. Beyond its statements attributed to anonymous officials, Saudi Arabia offered no evidence to support its claims.

On Friday, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called for a “prompt, thorough and transparent investigation” into Khashoggi’s death.

Asked Friday if he found the Saudi story credible, Trump said: “I do, I do,” adding: “It’s early, we haven’t finished our review or investigation.”

The White House said Saturday it was “saddened” after confirmation that Khashoggi was killed inside the consulate, but made no mention of US action against its major ally.

In the first US response to Saudi Arabia’s admission, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said that Washington “acknowledges the announcement.”

“We will continue to closely follow the international investigations into this tragic incident and advocate for justice that is timely, transparent and in accordance with all due process,” she said.

Saudi Arabia has sacked deputy intelligence chief Ahmad al-Assiri and royal court media advisor Saud al-Qahtani, both top aides to bin Salman, who has faced mounting pressure over the Khashoggi affair.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meets with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis at the Pentagon in Washington, on March 22, 2018. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

The admission that Khashoggi died at the hands of Saudi officials after weeks of vehement denials by the Gulf kingdom comes after Trump said that the United States, which is Saudi Arabia’s biggest backer, could impose sanctions if it was proved the journalist was killed.

Saudi Attorney General Sheikh Saud al-Mojeb said Khashoggi died after “discussions” at the consulate devolved into an altercation, without disclosing any details on the whereabouts of his body.

“Preliminary investigations… revealed that the discussions that took place between him and the persons who met him… at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul led to a brawl and a fist fight with the citizen, Jamal Khashoggi, which led to his death, may his soul rest in peace,” the attorney general said in a statement.

The Saudi king also ordered the setting up of ministerial committee under the chairmanship of the crown prince, widely known as MBS, to restructure the kingdom’s intelligence agency and “define its powers accurately,” state media said.

The controversy has put the kingdom — for decades a key Western ally and bulwark against Iran in the Middle East — under unprecedented pressure to offer an explanation to take the heat off its rulers.

It evolved into a major crisis for Prince Mohammed, a Trump administration favorite who has portrayed himself as a modernizing Arab reformer, but whose image and even position at home could now be gravely undermined.

“Dismissing Saud al-Qahtani and Ahmad al-Assiri is as close to MBS as it is possible to go,” said Kristian Ulrichsen, a fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute in the United States.

“Interesting to see if these moves prove sufficient. If the drip-drip of additional details continue, there’s no buffer to shield MBS any longer.”

Shortly before Riyadh confirmed that Khashoggi had been killed, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Saudi King Salman agreed in telephone talks to continue cooperation in the investigation into the Khashoggi affair.

Erdogan and Salman “emphasized the importance of continuing to work together with complete cooperation,” said a Turkish presidential source, who asked not to be named.

The United States warned Friday of a “wide range” of responses should it determine that Saudi Arabia is behind the death of Khashoggi, as Turkey widened its investigation into the scandal.

Trump said the United States could impose sanctions over the feared murder of Khashoggi while his top diplomat Mike Pompeo told Voice of America Radio: “We’ll certainly consider a wide range of potential responses.”

A general view of the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul on October 7, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / Yasin AKGUL)

The Trump administration has been notably slow to criticize Saudi Arabia, despite mounting evidence that Khashoggi vanished after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

The Khashoggi case has presented Trump with one of the most acute foreign policy crises of his nearly two-year-old presidency.

Saudi Arabia’s admission comes after Turkish authorities widened their probe on Friday, searching a forest in Istanbul.

Fifteen staff, all Turkish nationals, testified at the chief prosecutor’s office, state-run news agency Anadolu said. It has been reported that Turkish employees were given the day off on October 2, the day Khashoggi disappeared.

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