Turkey to Search Saudi Consulate for Traces of Missing Columnist

(Bloomberg) -- Saudi Arabia has authorized Turkey to search the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul after a Saudi journalist vanished there, the Turkish Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday, as international pressure mounted on Riyadh to account for his whereabouts.

Jamal Khashoggi, a contributing columnist to the Washington Post known for his criticism of the Saudi government, was last seen entering the consulate on Oct. 2 to take care of paperwork. A Turkish official, speaking anonymously and without providing evidence, said the 59-year-old journalist was murdered inside the building.

The Saudi government has denied the allegation, but without producing any proof to back up Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s assertion that Khashoggi exited the building. The columnist’s disappearance has rekindled concern about a crackdown on dissent in the kingdom after a year in which Saudi authorities have detained hundreds of businesspeople, royals, activists and clerics on grounds of rooting out corruption, terrorism and other risks to national security.

Demanding Answers

Pressure on the kingdom heated up Monday when the Trump administration demanded that Saudi Arabia provide answers and support a thorough investigation into the journalist’s disappearance. That same day, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan demanded proof that Khashoggi had left the building alive.

On Tuesday, Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy said Saudi authorities had agreed to a search. State-run Anadolu Agency said two prosecutors have been assigned to carry out “legal proceedings” at the consulate.

The case threatens to escalate tensions between the two Middle Eastern powers, already at odds over regional policy. Ties between Saudi Arabia and Turkey have been strained over Ankara’s support of a brand of political Islam opposed by the kingdom; Turkey has also sided with Qatar in a major diplomatic dispute with a Saudi-led coalition.

It also complicates President Donald Trump’s attempts to cultivate even closer relations with Saudi Arabia, long a key ally in the Middle East. Several U.S. lawmakers warned that Saudi Arabia could face economic consequences if it killed the journalist, who had been living in self-imposed exile in the U.S. for the past year.

‘A Friend’

In an email shared with reporters on Tuesday and described as a “personal message,” Prince Khalid bin Salman, the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., called Khashoggi a friend. Saudi Arabia has sent its own security team to work with Turkish counterparts and intends to “chase every lead to uncover the truth behind his disappearance,” he said.

The prince denied as “absolutely false” any suspicion that Saudi agents might have detained or killed Khashoggi, and contended it was “outrageous” to think he might have been “murdered in the consulate, during business hours, and with dozens of staff and visitors in the building.”

For many years, Khashoggi had been the consummate Saudi insider, hobnobbing with and advising royals before becoming a vocal critic of their policies. His move to the U.S. was prompted by concerns he’d be detained in Saudi Arabia or banned from travel as he became increasingly distant from the leadership.

In government-aligned newspapers and on social media, many Saudis have advanced a narrative that an insidious campaign to smear their country is behind the accusations -- pointing fingers at Turkey, Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Saudi Jets

Turkish newspaper Sabah, citing unidentified people, reported that on the day Khashoggi went missing, two jets arrived from Riyadh to Istanbul carrying 15 passengers, then returned home later that day via Egypt and Dubai. While that story said Khashoggi may have been murdered, another Sabah story said he may have been taken out of the country on one of the jets.

Anadolu reported that on Oct. 2, Turkish officials had searched a private jet that came from Saudi Arabia and its passengers but didn’t find anything.

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