By Ezgi Erkoyun and Ali Kucukgocmen
ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan urged Saudi Arabia on Friday to disclose who ordered the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, as well as the location of his body, heightening international pressure on the kingdom to come clean on the case.
Erdogan said Turkey had more information than it had shared so far about the killing of Khashoggi, a prominent U.S.-based critic of powerful Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, that has pitched the world’s top oil exporter and pivotal Middle East strategic partner of the West into a serious crisis.
The kingdom, Erdogan added, also must reveal the identity of the “local cooperator” whom Saudi officials earlier said had taken charge of Khashoggi’s body from Saudi agents after his killing inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.
On Thursday, Saudi Arabia’s public prosecutor said on Thursday the killing of Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist, was premeditated, contradicting a previous official statement that it happened accidentally during a tussle in the consulate.
“Who gave this order?” Erdogan said in a speech to members of his AK Party in Ankara. “Who gave the order for 15 people to come to Turkey?” he said, referring to a 15-man Saudi security team Turkey said flew into Istanbul hours before the killing.
Saudi officials initially denied having anything to do with Khashoggi’s disappearance after he entered the consulate, before announcing that an internal inquiry suggested he was killed by mistake in a botched operation to return him to the kingdom.
The kingdom’s shifting explanations of Khashoggi’s killing have stirred scepticism and spurred calls for Saudi transparency to determine who was ultimately responsible. He visited the consulate for paperwork need to allow him to remarry.
Khashoggi’s Turkish fiance, Hatice Cengiz, said she did not accept an invitation from U.S. President Donald Trump, the kingdom’s staunchest Western champion, to visit the White House after Khashoggi’s murder because she thought it was aimed at influencing public opinion in his own favour.
In her first television interview since the killing, Cengiz recounted the events leading up to their visit to the consulate on Oct. 2 where Khashoggi handed her his two mobile phones and went inside while she waited outside for him to emerge.
“Trump invited me to the United States but I perceived it as a statement to win public favour,” Cengiz told broadcaster Haberturk, pausing at times during an interview and more than once breaking down in tears.
Trump and Prince Mohammed have cultivated warm ties though the U.S. president said earlier this week that the crown prince, as the kingdom’s de facto ruler, bore ultimate responsibility for the operation against Khashoggi. Trump also said Riyad had staged the “worst cover-up ever” over the killing.
Cengiz also said Khashoggi was concerned tensions would arise when he visited the consulate on Oct. 2, though he had assumed he would not ultimately be arrested or harmed in Turkey.
“His local network in Turkey was very good as you know, his political network as well,” Cengiz said. “He thought Turkey is a safe country and if he would be held or interrogated, this issue would be swiftly solved.”
18 ARRESTS, FIVEDISMISSALS
Riyadh says 18 people have been arrested and five senior government officials have been sacked as part of the investigation. Prince Mohammed, Riyadh’s de facto ruler who casts himself as a reformer, has said the killers will be brought to justice.
Saudi state television quoted the Saudi public prosecutor on Thursday as saying Riyadh was interrogating suspects on the basis of information given by a joint Saudi-Turkish task force.
Erdogan said he had spoken with Prince Mohammed. “I also told the crown prince. I said, ‘You know how to make people talk. Whatever happened between these 18 people, this dodgy business is among them. If you are determined to lift suspicion, then the key point of our cooperation is these 18 people.’”
How Western allies deal with Riyadh will hinge on the extent to which they believe responsibility for Khashoggi’s death lies directly with Prince Mohammed and the Saudi authorities.
The stakes are high. Saudi Arabia is the lynchpin of a U.S.-backed regional alliance against Iran but the outcry over the murder has strained Riyadh’s relations with the West. Dozens of Western officials, bankers and executives boycotted a major investment conference in Riyadh this week.
Erdogan also said Saudi Arabia’s public prosecutor was due in Istanbul on Sunday to meets its regional chief prosecutor.
“Of course, we have other information; documents, but there is no need to be too hasty,” said Erdogan, who previously described Khashoggi’s demise as a “savage killing” and demanded Riyadh punish those responsible, no matter how highly placed.
Turkish officials suspect Saudi security agents killed Khashoggi, 59, inside the consulate and dismembered his body. Turkish sources say authorities have an audio recording purportedly documenting the murder.
U.S. CIA Director Gina Haspel heard the audio during a visit to Turkey this week, sources told Reuters, and has briefed Trump about Turkey’s findings and her discussions.
(Additional reporting by Orhan Coskun and Tulay Karadeniz in Ankara, Maria Tsvetkova in Moscow Writing by David Dolan; Editing by Mark Heinrich)