Nation & World

Pompeo calls for 'transparent' Saudi investigation into Khashoggi's fate

Mike Pompeo, U.S. secretary of state, speaks during a news conference in Singapore, on June 11, 2018. CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by SeongJoon Cho
Mike Pompeo, U.S. secretary of state, speaks during a news conference in Singapore, on June 11, 2018. CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by SeongJoon Cho

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pressed Saudi leaders Tuesday to move quickly with a “transparent” investigation into the disappearance of journalist Kamal Khashoggi even as Turkish officials sifted through possible evidence at the last place he was seen alive.

Turkish officials have said they believe a Saudi hit team killed Khashoggi earlier this month after he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. On Monday, forensic experts had their first chance to comb the site, and now plan to expand the searches to diplomatic vehicles and the main residence.

Saudi Arabia has repeatedly denied it has any hand in the fate of Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributing columnist who had been critical of the Saudi leadership. But international pressure has been mounting on the Saudi ruling family amid the conflicting accounts.

The Associated Press, citing Turkish police sources, reported the evidence indicated Khashoggi was killed at the consulate, where he visited Oct. 2 get a document needed so he could marry.

The AP report could not be inpendendly confirmed and it gave no specific details on the evidence collected.

But it reflected Turkey’s efforts to build its case against Saudi Arabia and possibly influence the decisions of other nations as they weigh whether to reevaluate commercial and political ties with the kingdom. Some Western leaders and business executives have pulled out of a major investment forum in Saudi Arabia next week.

Amid the fallout, Saudi Arabia’s consul general in Istanbul, Mohammad al-Otaibi, left Turkey for Riyadh on Tuesday, according Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency, citing diplomatic sources. He is the latest top Saudi diplomat around the world to return home for consultations.

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Meanwhile, President Donald Trump dispatched Pompeo to the Saudi capital for talks that including Saudi King Salman, Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir and the kingdom’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

“Secretary Pompeo conveyed the importance of a conducting a thorough, transparent and timely investigation,” said Heather Nauert, the State Department spokeswoman.

Nauert said Pompeo called Trump and National Security adviser John Bolton to update them on the meetings.

“While the United States has a number of regional and bilateral issues to discuss with Saudi leadership, learning what happened to Jamal Khashoggi is the primary purpose of this trip and is of great interest to the president,” Nauert said. “The secretary has made that clear in each of his meetings today.”

In public, however, Pompeo never spoke the name of Khashoggi, a U.S. resident.

The secretary of state was all smiles as he across a vast Persian carpet, his hand outstretched as he approached the crown prince.

“We are strong and old allies,” the crown prince told Pompeo before reporters were ushered out. “We face our challenges together - the past, the day of, tomorrow.”

Pompeo replied with enthusiasm: “Absolutely.”

Throughout the day, his aides offered no response to media reports the Saudis may be prepared to change their story and acknowledge Khashoggi is dead. So far, they have insisted he left the consulate with the document he sought in hand, and they have no idea what happened to him.

In Istanbul, it was unclear what possible clues were found by the Turkish forensic team.

Hours before they arrived, journalists photographed a cleaning crew entering the consulate with buckets, mops and what appeared to be cleaning solution. When investigators entered the consulate, they “smelled chemicals had been used,” according to two officials in contact with the investigators.

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“The investigation is looking into many things such as toxic materials and those materials being removed by painting them over,” Turkish President Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan told reporters.

Turkey’s foreign minister, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, said investigators were expanding their search to include the residence of the Saudi consul and the consulate’s fleet of vehicles.

U.S. officials began predicting over the weekend, however, that the Saudis would inevitably admit complicity in the death of Khashoggi and claim a “botched operation,” said one person familiar with the discussions.

Over the past few days, Saudi officials have discussed issuing a statement that, in part, would mention a botched operation and call for the punishment of culpable officials, according to another person with knowledge of the discussions. The statement would be issued only after Saudi Arabia reached an agreement with Turkey on how to proceed with the investigation, the person said.

An agreement allowing the inspection of the consulate came after Salman called Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday. Salman thanked him for welcoming the kingdom’s proposal to set up a “joint working group” to probe Khashoggi’s disappearance, a Saudi statement said.

Speaking to reporters, Trump said Monday that he had talked for about 20 minutes with the king and that Salman had firmly denied the kingdom’s involvement in Khashoggi’s disappearance.

“I don’t want to get into his mind, but it sounded to me like maybe these could have been rogue killers,” Trump added. “Who knows? We’re going to try getting to the bottom of it very soon, but his was a flat denial.”

It was not clear whether Trump’s mention of “rogue killers” was his own speculation, a theory he had heard from the king or an intended confirmation that Khashoggi was killed in the consulate.

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Trump had previously warned of “severe punishment” for Saudi Arabia if a link to Khashoggi’s death is proved.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a Trump political ally, pushed even harder Tuesday, calling the Saudi crown prince “toxic” and saying, “This guy has got to go.”

Graham’s comments, on Fox News Channel’s “Fox & Friends,” underscored the apparent frustration by some in Congress about the 33-year-old crown prince and his crackdowns on dissent.

“He had this guy murdered in the consulate in Turkey. Expect me to ignore it? I feel used and abused,” Graham said, referring to his previous advocacy for Saudi Arabia as a senator. “I was on the floor every time defending Saudi Arabia because they are a good ally.”

Turkish officials have released details of their investigation, including video that suggests a team of Saudi agents was dispatched to Istanbul to either capture Khashoggi or kill him.

The Turkish government has also told the Trump administration that it has audio and video recordings of what occurred inside the consulate that day. U.S. officials have said this material supports the conclusion that Khashoggi was interrogated, tortured and then killed.

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The Washington Post’s Kareem Fahim, Souad Mekhennet and John Wagner contributed to this report.

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