Erdogan urges Saudi to release images of missing journalist

Saudi insists Khashoggi left building safely, but Ankara believes assassination team murdered him.

ANKARA - President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pressed Saudi Arabia on Thursday to release images that prove Riyadh's claim missing journalist Jamal Khashoggi left the Saudi consulate in Istanbul alive, vowing Turkey would "not remain silent" in the mystery over his fate.

Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributor, vanished on October 2 after he went to the consulate to obtain official documents for his upcoming marriage.

Saudi Arabia has insisted the journalist left the building safely. But Turkish government sources said police believe Khashoggi was killed by an assassination team sent to Istanbul.

The Saudi consulate has said CCTV cameras were not working that day and has dismissed the murder claims as "baseless" in a Twitter message. Since then, it has maintained its silence.

But in comments to Turkish reporters travelling on his presidential plane, Erdogan indicated that he did not find the Saudi explanations sufficient.

"Is it possible there were no camera systems in a consulate, in an embassy? Is it possible that there was no Saudi camera system where this incident took place?" Erdogan said, according to Hurriyet daily.

"If a bird flew, or a fly or a mosquito appeared, the systems would capture this; they (Saudi Arabia) have the most cutting-edge systems," he was quoted as saying.

While unnamed Turkish officials quoted in the media have been giving sometimes macabre details of the alleged murder, Erdogan has so far been more circumspect.

He has said Saudi Arabia must prove its version of events but so far has stopped short of directly accusing the kingdom or laying the blame on powerful Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.

"This is an incident which took place in our country. It's not possible for us to stay silent regarding an incident like this," Erdogan said.

"It would not be right for me to make any comment at this moment. But we have concerns."

Khashoggi was a former government adviser who fled Saudi Arabia in September 2017 and lived in the United States fearing arrest back home.

In his columns for the Washington Post and comments elsewhere, Khashoggi was critical of some policies of Mohammed bin Salman as well as Riyadh's role in the war in Yemen.

Risky strategy

Riyadh's silence since shrugging off the "baseless" reports is a risky strategy amid increasing pressure from key allies such as the US.

A day after demanding that Saudi Arabia provide answers to Khashoggi's disappearance, US President Donald Trump said Thursday American investigators were working with both Ankara and Riyadh to probe the affair. Turkey swiftly denied Trump's comments.

But Britain's foreign secretary said Riyadh would face "serious consequences" if reports that Khashoggi was murdered were true.

Saudi Arabia is being cautious about making official statements, "as other countries are," said Aleksandar Mitreski, a security and defence analyst.

"The risk here is that by remaining silent the kingdom may look guilty in the eyes of international media," Mitreski, researcher at the University of Sydney, said.

Riyadh has also not commented on US and Turkish media reports that an "assassination team" was sent to Istanbul or claims that Prince Mohammed issued an order to "lure" Khashoggi back to the kingdom.

"However, making an official statement that can be questioned as new evidence emerges could be even more damaging for Saudi Arabia," said Mitreski.

Earlier this week, Erdogan urged the kingdom to release footage of the journalist leaving the Saudi consulate, to back up its contention that he left the building safely.

Turkish police are looking into a team of 15 Saudis who they say were at the consulate at the same time as Khashoggi and arrived in Istanbul on October 2 on board two private planes. Turkish media have said the 15 were an "assassination team" and that they took the consulate's footage with them.

The consulate has said the CCTV cameras were not working that day.

The kingdom has "done itself few favours by flatly rejecting any responsibility for Khashoggi's disappearance," said James Dorsey, an expert in international affairs.

"Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has suffered significant reputational damage irrespective of Khashoggi's fate, raising the question of his viability if Saudi Arabia were condemned internationally," Dorsey, a fellow at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said.

'Serious consequences'

With Khashoggi's finance Hatice Cengiz calling on the US to help find him, the mystery has captivated the world and hurt efforts by the young crown prince to improve the image of his country with his reform drive.

"I have to find out what happened," Trump said Thursday, when asked if US-Saudi relations would be jeopardised.

"We're probably getting closer than you might think," he added.

Much is at stake.

A major three-day investment conference hosted by Prince Mohammed and due to be held in Riyadh from October 23-25 with invited international leaders such as US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and IMF chief Christine Lagarde is going ahead, organisers said.

But Britain's Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said he was very concerned about Khashoggi's fate.

"People who have long thought of themselves as Saudi's friends are saying this is a very, very serious matter," Hunt said.

"If these allegations are true, there will be serious consequences because our friendships and our partnerships are based on shared values."

Trump spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said National Security Advisor John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Trump's close aide and son-in-law Jared Kushner had all spoken to the crown prince over the past few days.

Meanwhile local Saudi media has reported that the kingdom is a subject of a smear campaign by political rivals.

Saudi-owned Al-Sharq al-Awsat cited on Thursday an unnamed official source as saying there was "no evidence" that Saudi Arabia was behind the alleged killing.

The 33-year-old crown prince, who was named heir to the throne in June 2017, has garnered international attention with his rapid rise to power as well as social and economic reforms.

While he has been lauded by some for pursuing changes such as lifting a decades-long ban on women driving and clipping the wings of the long-feared religious police, others have criticised what they perceive as a crackdown on political dissent.