Turkish police believe Saudi journalist and critic Jamal Khashoggi was murdered inside Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul, a government source said, but Riyadh denied the claim.
The Washington Post contributor, 59, vanished after an appointment with Saudi officials on Tuesday.
“Based on their initial findings, the police believe that the journalist was killed by a team especially sent to Istanbul and who left the same day,” the government source told AFP on Saturday.
Police said earlier that around 15 Saudis, including officials, arrived in Istanbul on two flights on Tuesday and were at the consulate at the same time as Khashoggi.
The journalist went to the building to obtain official documents but “did not come back out”, police were quoted as saying by Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency.
Ankara announced on Saturday it had opened an official probe into his disappearance.
The state-run Saudi Press Agency quoted an unnamed official at the Istanbul consulate as denying the reports of Khashoggi’s murder.
“The official strongly denounced these baseless allegations,” the agency wrote.
It said a team of Saudi investigators were in Turkey working with local authorities.
– Friends warned: ‘Don’t go’ –
Reacting to the news, the journalist’s Turkish fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, said on Twitter she was “waiting for an official confirmation from the Turkish government to believe it”.
Khashoggi had gone to the consulate to receive an official document for their marriage.
In his newspaper columns, Khashoggi has been critical of some policies of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Riyadh’s intervention in the war in Yemen.
The former government adviser, who turns 60 on October 13, has lived in self-imposed exile in the United States since last year to avoid possible arrest.
Yasin Aktay, an official in Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) who was close to the journalist, said Khashoggi had made an appointment in advance with the consulate and called to check the documents were ready.
“His friends had warned him, ‘Don’t go there, it is not safe,’ but he said they could not do anything to him in Turkey,” said Aktay.
He added that he still hoped the reports of his friend’s death were untrue.
– ‘Unprecedented crime if true’ –
Prince Mohammed said in an interview published by Bloomberg on Friday that the journalist had left the consulate and Turkish authorities could search the building, which is Saudi sovereign territory.
“We are ready to welcome the Turkish government to go and search our premises,” he said. “We have nothing to hide.”
Turkey’s foreign ministry on Wednesday summoned Saudi Arabia’s ambassador over the issue.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists demanded Riyadh give “a full and credible account” of what happened to Khashoggi inside the consulate.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said on Twitter that if reports of his death were confirmed, “this would constitute a horrific, utterly deplorable, and absolutely unacceptable assault on press freedom”.
OSCE media freedom representative Harlem Desir said on Twitter that he was “shocked” by the claims.
“If confirmed, that’s an unprecedented crime against journalists. I trust Turkey authorities will unveil details. Those responsible for this horrific crime must face justice,” Desir added.
A spokesperson for the US State Department said it could not confirm the reports but was “closely following the situation”.
The British Foreign Office said in a statement it was “working urgently” to verify the “extremely serious” allegations.
Fred Hiatt, the director of the Washington Post’s editorial page, said if the reports were true “it is a monstrous and unfathomable act”.
“Jamal was — or, as we hope, is — a committed, courageous journalist. He writes out of a sense of love for his country and deep faith in human dignity and freedom,” Hiatt said in a statement on the US newspaper’s website.
– ‘Reasoned criticism’ –
Khashoggi fled from Saudi Arabia in September 2017, months after Prince Mohammed was appointed heir to the throne, amid a campaign that saw dozens of dissidents arrested including intellectuals and Islamic preachers.
The journalist said he had been banned from writing in the pan-Arab Al-Hayat newspaper, owned by Saudi prince Khaled bin Sultan al-Saud, over his defence of the Muslim Brotherhood which Riyadh has blacklisted as a terrorist organisation.
He has also criticised Saudi Arabia’s role in Yemen, where Riyadh leads a military coalition fighting alongside the government in its war with Iran-backed rebels.
Saudi Arabia, which ranks 169th out of 180 on RSF’s World Press Freedom Index, has launched a modernisation campaign since Prince Mohammed’s appointment as heir to the throne.
The ultra-conservative kingdom in June lifted a ban on women driving.
But it has drawn heavy criticism for its handling of dissent.
Khashoggi’s criticism of Prince Mohammed’s policies have appeared in both the Arab and Western press.