October 17, 2018

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Police searching the Saudi Consulate found evidence that Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi was killed there, a high-level Turkish official said, as America’s top diplomat flew to the country on Wednesday to discuss the probe.

The comment by the Turkish official to The Associated Press intensified pressure on Saudi Arabia to explain what happened to Khashoggi, who vanished Oct. 2 while visiting the consulate to pick up paperwork he needed to get married.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told journalists before leaving Riyadh that Saudi leaders, including King Salman and his son, the 33-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, “made no exceptions on who they would hold accountable.”

“They made a commitment to hold anyone connected to any wrongdoing that may be found accountable for that, whether they are a senior officer or official,” Pompeo said. However, no major decision is made outside of the ultraconservative kingdom’s ruling Al Saud family. Khashoggi also fled the country last year amid the rise of Prince Mohammed, whom he wrote critically about in The Washington Post.

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump, who earlier warned of “severe punishment” if the kingdom was found culpable for Khashoggi’s appearance, criticized the global condemnation against the kingdom and compared it to the allegations of sexual assault leveled against now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearing.

“Here we go again with you’re guilty until proven innocent,” Trump told the AP in an interview. That attitude does not appear to be shared with Congress, as one prominent Republican senator said he believed that the crown prince, widely known as MBS, had Khashoggi “murdered.”

“This guy has got to go,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, speaking on Fox television. “Saudi Arabia, if you’re listening, there are a lot of good people you can choose, but MBS has tainted your country and tainted himself.”

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said “serious evaluation” was being given to whether U.S. law enforcement officials would aid in the investigation of Khashoggi’s disappearance. He declined to comment further, or to say whether he had any concerns with the current investigation.

Saudi officials have called Turkish allegations that a team of 15 Saudi agents killed Khashoggi “baseless,” but U.S. media reports suggested that the kingdom may acknowledge the writer was killed at the consulate, perhaps as part of a botched interrogation.

Washington Post Publisher and CEO Fred Ryan said the Saudi government “owes the Khashoggi family and the world a full and honest explanation of everything that happened to him,” noting that Tuesday marked two weeks since the disappearance of the 59-year-old journalist.

“The Saudi government can no longer remain silent, and it is essential that our own government and others push harder for the truth,” Ryan added. The high-level Turkish official told the AP that police found “certain evidence” of Khashoggi’s slaying at the consulate, without elaborating. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation was ongoing.

Police plan a second search at the Saudi consul general’s home, as well as some of the country’s diplomatic vehicles, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said. Leaked surveillance video shows that diplomatic cars traveled to the consul general’s home shortly after Khashoggi went into the consulate.

Consul General Mohammed al-Otaibi left Turkey on Tuesday afternoon, state media reported, just as police began putting up barricades around his official residence. Saudi Arabia did not immediately acknowledge he had left or offer a reason for his departure. The search, however, did not happen overnight and reasons for that weren’t immediately clear.

Earlier Tuesday, U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said the “inviolability or immunity” of people or premises granted under the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations “should be waived immediately.” That convention covers diplomatic immunity, as well as the idea that embassies and consulates sit on foreign soil in their host countries.

“Given there seems to be clear evidence that Mr. Khashoggi entered the consulate and has never been seen since, the onus is on the Saudi authorities to reveal what happened to him,” Bachelet said. Nils Melzer, the U.N. special investigator on torture, said that if Turkey and Saudi Arabia can’t conduct “a credible and objective investigation,” then international involvement may be needed.

Turkey had wanted to search the consulate for days. Permission apparently came after a late Sunday night call between King Salman and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Certain areas of the consulate were to remain off-limits, although officials would be able to inspect surveillance cameras, Turkish media reported.

Erdogan told journalists Tuesday that police sought traces of “toxic” materials and suggested parts of the consulate had been recently painted, without elaborating. On his Riyadh trip, Pompeo thanked King Salman “for accepting my visit on behalf of President Trump” before the two went into a closed-door meeting. Pompeo then met a smiling Prince Mohammed, the heir apparent to the throne of the world’s largest oil exporter.

“We are strong and old allies,” the prince told Pompeo. “We face our challenges together — the past, the day of, tomorrow.” Pompeo said later that Saudi Arabia had made a “serious commitment” to hold senior leaders and officials accountable in the case, and that the crown prince again denied any knowledge of what happened to Khashoggi.

Trump’s previous warnings over the case drew an angry response Sunday from Saudi Arabia and its state-linked media, including a suggestion that Riyadh could wield its oil production as a weapon. The U.S. president has been after King Salman and OPEC to boost production to drive down high oil prices, caused in part by the coming re-imposition of oil sanctions on Iran.

The New York Times and The Washington Post have reported, citing anonymous sources, that Saudi officials may soon acknowledge Khashoggi’s slaying at the consulate but blame it on a botched intelligence operation.

That could, like Trump’s softening comments, seek to give the kingdom a way out of the global firestorm of criticism over Khashoggi’s fate. “The effort behind the scenes is focused on avoiding a diplomatic crisis between the two countries and has succeeded in finding a pathway to deescalate tensions,” said Ayham Kamel, the head of the Eurasia Group’s Mideast and North Africa division.

“Riyadh will have to provide some explanation of the journalist’s disappearance, but in a manner that distances the leadership from any claim that a decision was made at senior levels to assassinate the prominent journalist,” he said.

Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writers Catherine Lucey, Jonathan Lemire and Zeke Miller in Washington contributed to this report.

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