US top diplomat Mike Pompeo held talks with Saudi King Salman on Tuesday seeking answers about the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, amid US media reports the kingdom may be mulling an admission he died during a botched interrogation.
“Rogue killers” could be to blame for the disappearance of Khashoggi, who has not been seen since he walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2 to sort out marriage paperwork, US President Donald Trump said after telephone talks with the king.
Trump dispatched Pompeo to Riyadh for what the State Department described as “face to face meetings with the Saudi leadership”.
After his talks with the king, Pompeo was to have dinner with his powerful son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a US official told the accompanying press.
Turkish police on Monday searched the consulate for the first time since the disappearance of Khashoggi, a Saudi national and US resident who had become increasingly critical of Prince Mohammed.
Turkish officials have said they believe he was killed – a claim Saudi Arabia has denied – with the controversy dealing a huge blow to the prince’s efforts to showcase a reform drive and burnish the kingdom’s image.
US media reported on Monday that the kingdom is considering an admission that Khashoggi died after an interrogation that went wrong during an intended abduction.
The UN human rights chief called Tuesday for the lifting of the immunity of officials who might be involved in Khashoggi’s disappearance.
“In view of the seriousness of the situation surrounding the disappearance of Mr. Khashoggi, I believe the inviolability or immunity of the relevant premises and officials… should be waived immediately,” Michelle Bachelet said in a statement.
Until Monday, Riyadh had not allowed Turkish investigators to search the consulate – officially Saudi territory – with reports both sides were at odds over the conditions.
The investigators, who searched the premises for eight hours into Tuesday morning, took samples with them, including soil from the consulate garden, one official at the scene said.
Istanbul police are now also planning to search the nearby consul’s residence, a diplomatic source said.
Trump’s comments came after a telephone conversation with King Salman, father of the crown prince, the first such talks since the crisis erupted.
“Just spoke to the King of Saudi Arabia who denies any knowledge of whatever may have happened ‘to our Saudi Arabian citizen’,” Trump tweeted.
Riyadh’s most recent comments have focused on having no knowledge of any killing or denying that any order to kill Khashoggi had been given.
“The denial was very, very strong,” Trump later told reporters at the White House. “It sounded to me like maybe these could have been rogue killers. Who knows?”
But CNN cited two sources as saying the Saudis are preparing a report that his death resulted from a botched interrogation, while the Wall Street Journal said the kingdom was weighing whether to say that rogue operatives killed Khashoggi by mistake.
After his crunch talks in Riyadh Tuesday, Pompeo was expected in Turkey on Wednesday to meet Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, the state-run Anadolu news agency said.
The search came after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and King Salman also had their first telephone talks since the controversy erupted.
The controversy has troubled Saudi’s traditional Western allies, who are key arms suppliers to the kingdom, and also undermined efforts by Mohammed bin Salman to present himself as a modernising ruler.
An investment conference seen as a platform for the crown prince and dubbed the “Davos in the Desert”, scheduled to take place in Riyadh next week, has been hit by a string of prominent cancellations.
JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, Ford chairman Bill Ford and Larry Fink, the head of investment giant BlackRock, were among the latest business barons to cancel plans to attend.
US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said he still plans to attend but would “take (it)… into account” if more information came out.
The controversy meanwhile threw into doubt a USD 400 million deal the Saudi Public Investment Fund negotiated with Hollywood’s most powerful talent agency as part of the crown prince’s drive for a foothold in the entertainment industry.
Endeavor CEO Ari Emanuel said the Khashoggi case was “very, very concerning”, although he stopped short of pronouncing the deal was dead.
Trump has threatened the kingdom with “severe punishment” if it is shown that
Khashoggi was killed inside its Istanbul mission.
But he has also made clear he is reluctant to curb all-important arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
Britain, France and Germany also released a rare joint statement saying they were treating Khashoggi’s disappearance “with the utmost seriousness” and calling for a “credible investigation”.
Riyadh, however, has vowed to hit back against any punitive measures imposed over the affair.