Saudi Arabia has admitted that journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed inside its consulate in the Turkish city of Istanbul, according to the kingdom’s state media.
The official SPA press agency said on Saturday that preliminary results of investigations showed that the dissident writer died after a fight broke out inside the building.
“An argument erupted between him [Khashoggi] and others whom he met in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul leading to a fist fight which led to his death,” SPA reported.
“The investigations are still under way and 18 Saudi nationals have been arrested,” a statement from the Saudi public prosecutor said, adding Royal court adviser Saud al-Qahtani and deputy intelligence chief Ahmed al-Asiri have been sacked from their positions.
It remains unclear where Khashoggi’s body is following his killing.
Khashoggi, a columnist for The Washington Post who wrote critically of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman‘s rise to power, went missing on October 2 after entering the consulate in Istanbul to obtain documents needed for his upcoming marriage.
His whereabouts had remained unknown since.
Saudi officials had previously denied the writer and critic had been killed inside the diplomatic facility, insisting Khashoggi had left the building before vanishing.
Turkish media reports had previously suggested that Khashoggi was killed by a 15-person “assassination team” who flew in on two chartered planes to interrogate, torture and kill him.
Over the past two weeks, Turkish intelligence had also disclosed a steady stream of leaks to the media, saying it had audio recordings that proved Khashoggi was killed inside the consulate building.
On Wednesday, the Turkish pro-government newspaper Yeni Safak, citing what it described as an audio recording of the journalist’s killing, said the 15-member squad immediately accosted Khashoggi after he entered the consulate, cutting off his fingers and later decapitating him.
Turkish crime scene investigators this week searched the consulate building in Istanbul and the nearby residence of the Saudi consul general, and came out carrying bags and boxes. On Friday, investigators questioned staff and explored whether his remains could have been dumped outside Istanbul, Turkish media and a security official said.
Al Jazeera’s Sinem Koseoglu, reporting from Turkey’s capital, Ankara, said Turkish officials are accusing Saudi officials of attempting to thwart a joint Saudi-Turkish investigation, noting Mohammed bin Salman has been put in charge of leading the Saudi probe into Khashoggi’s disappearance.
“It’s a question of how to get away with murder,” she said. “For the sake of the prosecution, the only thing missing is the body of Jamal Khashoggi in order to file an indictment . Now Turkey is going to ask, where is the body?”
SPA also reported on Saturday that Saudi Arabia expressed its “deep regret” for Khashoggi’s death and praised the Turkish government’s cooperation.
“The Kingdom expresses its deep regret at the painful developments that have taken place and stresses the commitment of the authorities in the Kingdom to bring the facts to the public opinion, to hold all those involved accountable and bring them to justice by referring them to the competent courts in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” it said.
The statement came shortly after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington would consider a “wide range” of responses if it is determined that Saudi leaders or officials played a role in Khashoggi’s killing.
US President Donald Trump also said on Friday he could consider sanctions against Saudi Arabia over the case.
Following the Saudi confirmation, Trump said the announcement of arrests was a “good first step” but added that what happened was “unacceptable.”
Al Jazeera’s Andrew Simmons, reporting from Istanbul, said it remains to be seen how the US and Turkey respond to the revelation of Khashoggi’s death.
“It’s going to be extremely tense in the coming hours,” he said. “Can they [Saudis] ride this out with this explanation? It remains to be seen,” said Simmons.
“The pressure is now on the Turks to respond in some way to this assertion.”
Intelligence agency restructuring
Meanwhile, SPA reported that Saudi King Salman had ordered the restructuring of the command of the general intelligence agency under the supervision of Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS.
The order also included updating regulations, determining the agency’s powers and evaluating its methods and procedures.
It said the king ordered the formation of a ministerial committee, headed by the crown prince, to oversee the restructure. It will include the interior minister, the foreign minister, the head of the intelligence agency and the chief of homeland security.