Saudi Arabia on Sunday called the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at its Istanbul consulate a “huge and grave mistake”, but sought to shield its powerful crown prince from the widening crisis, saying Mohammed bin Salman had not been aware.
The comments from foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir were some of the most direct yet from Riyadh, which has given multiple and conflicting accounts about Khashoggi’s killing on October 2nd, first denying his death before admitting it on Saturday amid an international outcry.
The kingdom’s weeks of denial and lack of credible evidence in the face of allegations from Turkish officials that Khashoggi had been killed have shaken global confidence in ties with the world’s top oil exporter, Western governments say.
US treasury secretary Stephen Mnuchin said on Sunday that Saudi Arabia’s admission that the Washington Post columnist had been killed in a fistfight was a “good first step but not enough”, though he added it was premature to discuss any sanctions against Riyadh.
Three major European powers – Germany, Britain and France – pressed Saudi Arabia to provide facts to back up its earlier explanation of a fight, while German chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany would not export arms to Saudi Arabia while the current uncertainty over Khashoggi’s fate persisted.
Speaking to US broadcaster Fox, the Saudi foreign minister extended condolences to Khashoggi’s family.
“This is a terrible mistake. This is a terrible tragedy. Our condolences go out to them. We feel their pain,” he said. “Unfortunately, a huge and grave mistake was made and I assure them that those responsible will be held accountable for this.”
He said the Saudis did not know how Khashoggi, a Saudi national and US resident, had been killed or where his body was. He also said that prince Mohammed, defacto ruler of Saudi Arabia, was not responsible.
“This was an operation where individuals ended up exceeding the authorities and responsibilities they had. They made the mistake when they killed Jamal Khashoggi in the consulate and they tried to cover up for it.”
Khashoggi went missing after entering the consulate to obtain documents for his upcoming marriage.
After denying any involvement in the 59-year-old’s disappearance for two weeks, Saudi Arabia on Saturday said Khashoggi, a critic of the crown prince, had died during a fight in the building. An hour later, another Saudi official attributed the death to a chokehold.
“Nothing can justify this killing and we condemn it in the strongest possible terms,” Germany, Britain and France said in their joint statement on Sunday.
“There remains an urgent need for clarification of exactly what happened . . . beyond the hypotheses that have been raised so far in the Saudi investigation, which need to be backed by facts to be considered credible.”
Reflecting international scepticism over its account, a senior Saudi government official has laid out a new version that in key respects contradicts previous explanations.
The latest account includes details on how the team of 15 Saudi nationals sent to confront Khashoggi had threatened him with being drugged and kidnapped and killed him in a chokehold when he resisted. A member of the team dressed in Khashoggi’s clothes to make it appear as if he had left the consulate.