By Aziz El Yaakoubi, Jeff Mason and Yara Bayoumy
DUBAI/WASHINGTON - Saudi Arabia said on Saturday that journalist Jamal Khashoggi had died in a fight inside its Istanbul consulate - Riyadh’s first acknowledgement of his death there after two weeks of denials that it had anything to do with his disappearance.
Saudi King Salman also dismissed five officials over the incident, which has caused an international outcry and thrown Western relations with the Middle East power into turmoil.
Reacting to the Saudi account, U.S. President Donald Trump said it was credible. But U.S. lawmakers said they found it hard to believe, signaling a battle over what actions might be taken against Saudi Arabia, an important Western ally.
Saudi Arabia provided no evidence to support its account of the circumstances that led to Khashoggi’s death and it was unclear whether other governments would be satisfied with it.
But Trump, who has made close ties with Saudi Arabia a centerpiece of his foreign policy, said in Arizona: “I think it’s a good first step, it’s a big step.”
“Saudi Arabia has been a great ally. What happened is unacceptable,” he added, saying he would speak with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler.
Trump emphasized Riyadh’s importance in countering regional rival Iran and the importance for American jobs of massive U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
Some U.S. lawmakers however were unpersuaded by Riyadh’s account.
“To say that I am skeptical of the new Saudi narrative about Mr. Khashoggi is an understatement,” said Republican U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham.
Khashoggi, a critic of the crown prince who lived in the United States and was a Washington Post columnist, went missing after entering the consulate on Oct. 2 to obtain documents for his upcoming marriage.
Days later, Turkish officials said they believed he was killed in the building and his body cut up, an allegation Saudi Arabia had, until now, strenuously denied.
The Saudi public prosecutor said on Saturday that a fight broke out between Khashoggi and people who met him in the consulate, leading to his death. Eighteen Saudi nationals had been arrested, the prosecutor said in a statement.
A Saudi official told Reuters separately: “A group of Saudis had a physical altercation and Jamal died as a result of the chokehold. They were trying to keep him quiet.”
Saudi state media said King Salman had ordered the dismissal of five officials, including Saud al-Qahtani, a royal court adviser seen as the right-hand man to Crown Prince Mohammed, and deputy intelligence chief Ahmed Asiri.
Turkish sources say the authorities have an audio recording purportedly documenting Khashoggi’s murder inside the consulate.
Turkish pro-government newspaper Yeni Safak has published what it said were details from the audio. It said Khashoggi’s torturers cut off his fingers during an interrogation and later beheaded and dismembered him.
Before the Saudi announcements, Trump said he might consider sanctions although he has also appeared unwilling to distance himself too much from the Saudi leadership.
He said in Arizona that he would work with Congress on next moves, but “I would prefer that we don’t use as retribution cancelling $110 billion worth of work, which means 600,000 jobs...we need them as a counterbalance to Iran.”
For other Western allies, a main question will be they believe Prince Mohammed, who has painted himself as a reformer, has no culpability. King Salman had handed the day-to-day running of Saudi Arabia to his son, whose reputation has been tarnished by the Khashoggi affair.
“It’s a highly worrying situation and we have decided not to attend the investment seminar,” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said in Copenhagen on Saturday, referring to a planned Saudi investment summit that has seen a string of high-profile Western executives and officials pull out since the crisis began.
“The whole world community is now watching the situation.”
The crisis prompted the king to intervene, five sources with links to the Saudi royal family told Reuters.
The king also ordered the formation of a ministerial committee headed by Prince Mohammed to restructure the general intelligence agency, state media said, suggesting the prince still retained wide-ranging authority.
The White House said it would continue to press for “justice that is timely, transparent, and in accordance with all due process”.
Republican Senator Rand Paul tweeted: “We should also halt all military sales, aid and cooperation immediately. There must be a severe price for these actions by Saudi Arabia.”
Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal told CNN the Saudi explanation “absolutely defies credibility” while Democratic Senator Jack Reed, the Ranking Member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the Saudis were still not coming clean with the truth.
“This appears to have been a deliberate, planned act followed by a cover up,” he said in a statement. “You don’t bring 15 men and a bone saw to a fist fight with a 60-year-old.”
‘NO ORDERS TO KILL HIM’
Qahtani, 40, rose to prominence after latching onto Prince Mohammed, becoming a rare confidante in his secretive inner circle.
Sources say Qahtani would regularly speak on behalf of the crown prince and has given direct orders to senior officials including in the security apparatus.
People close to Khashoggi and the government said Qahtani had tried to lure the journalist back to Saudi Arabia after he moved to Washington a year ago fearing reprisals for his views.
In a Twitter thread from August 2017, Qahtani wrote: “Do you think I make decisions without guidance? I am an employee and a faithful executor of the orders of my lord the king and my lord the faithful crown prince.”
In a tweet on Saturday, he thanked the king and crown prince for the “big confidence” they had in him.
Asiri joined the Saudi military in 2002, according to Saudi media reports, serving as spokesman for a coalition backing Yemen’s ousted president after Prince Mohammed led Saudi Arabia into that country’s civil war in 2015. He was named deputy chief of foreign intelligence in April 2017.
The crown prince had no knowledge of the specific operation that resulted in Khashoggi’s death, a Saudi official familiar with the Saudi investigation said.
“There were no orders for them to kill him or even specifically kidnap him,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity. There was a standing order to bring critics of the kingdom back to the country, he added.
“MbS had no knowledge of this specific operation and certainly did not order a kidnapping or murder of anybody. He will have been aware of the general instruction to tell people to come back,” the official said.
The official said the whereabouts of Khashoggi’s body were unclear after it was handed over to a “local cooperator” but there was no sign of it at the consulate.
The public prosecutor’s statement did not specify where the operatives had put Khashoggi’s body or if they plan to inform the Turks. The Saudi official told Reuters, “We don’t know for certain what happened to the body.”
Khashoggi’s Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, tweeted in Arabic: “The heart grieves, the eye tears, and with your separation we are saddened, my dear Jamal,” she said, also asking “#where is martyr Khashoggi’s body?”