Saudi Arabia says Khashoggi accusations are 'lies'
DUBAI - Saudi Arabia dismissed on Saturday accusations that Jamal Khashoggi was ordered murdered by a hit squad inside its Istanbul consulate as "lies and baseless allegations", as Riyadh and Ankara spar over the missing journalist's fate.
A Saudi delegation was in Turkey for talks on the case, which threatens not only to harm fragile relations between the two countries but also to do serious damage to the reformist credentials of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the kingdom's ties to the West.
"We're going to get to the bottom of it and there will be severe punishment," US President Donald Trump told CBS's "60 Minutes" program, according to an extract of an interview that was released on Saturday.
"As of this moment, they (Saudi) deny it and they deny it vehemently. Could it be them? Yes," Trump said in the interview, which was conducted on Thursday.
But he again voiced his reluctance to limit US arms sales to the kingdom, which analysts see as one of Washington's key potential levers.
Trump, who has become notorious for his attacks on American journalists, added the matter was especially important "because this man was a reporter".
As the controversy intensified, the Washington Post reported Turkish officials had recordings made from inside the building that allegedly proved their claims Khashoggi was tortured and killed at the consulate.
Big names from media and business have already cancelled appearances at a major conference in Riyadh this month and both the IMF chief and the US treasury secretary made their attendance conditional on the findings in the case.
In the first Saudi ministerial reaction to Turkish accusations that Khashoggi was killed, Interior Minister Prince Abdel Aziz bin Saud bin Nayef condemned "what has been reported in certain media concerning false accusations against Saudi Arabia... in the case of the disappearance of citizen Khashoggi".
"What has been reported on the matter of orders to kill him is a lie and a baseless allegation," the minister said in comments carried by the official Saudi Press Agency.
He added the kingdom was "in compliance with international laws and conventions".
Saudi journalist and Washington Post contributor Khashoggi vanished on October 2 after entering the consulate to obtain documents for his upcoming marriage.
The Saudi delegation, whose composition was not immediately clear, is expected to meet with Turkish officials in Ankara at the weekend, state media said on Friday.
It is likely that they will take part in a joint working group on the case, whose creation was announced Thursday by Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin following a request by Saudi Arabia.
A Saudi official source quoted by SPA news agency said it was "a positive move" Turkey had agreed to the creation of what it described as a "joint action team".
Pro-government media in Turkey have published sensational claims about the case, including that an "assassination team" was sent to Istanbul to kill Khashoggi.
Equally sensational, the Washington Post reported the Turkish government allegedly told US officials it has audio and video recordings which show how Khashoggi was "interrogated, tortured and then murdered" inside the consulate before his body was dismembered.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has challenged Saudi Arabia to provide CCTV images to back up its account that Khashoggi left the consulate safely.
Khashoggi, a Saudi national living in the US since September 2017 fearing arrest, criticised some policies of Mohammed bin Salman and Riyadh's intervention in the war in Yemen.
Ankara has so far trodden carefully in the controversy, with the most sensational allegations splashed in the pro-government press but Erdogan stopping short of directly accusing Riyadh of wrongdoing.
Turkey and Saudi have an uneasy relationship, with disputes over the ousting of the Islamist government in Egypt and the blockade imposed on Ankara's ally Qatar.
Yet as key Sunni Muslim powers they have maintained cordial relations. Erdogan has generally been wary of needling the oil-rich conservative kingdom and on Saturday again gave a long speech to supporters without mentioning the issue.
The spokesman of Erdogan's ruling party, Omer Celik, acknowledged Saturday that there were "extremely sensational claims" about Khashoggi's fate in the media and said there would be "severe consequences" for anyone found responsible if they were true.
"Far from the speculation, work is being carried out in the most sensitive way to find out what happened," he said in televised comments.
Pro-government Turkish newspaper Sabah said officials wanted to search the consulate building with luminol, a chemical that allows forensic teams to discover blood traces, but the Saudis had so far refused.
Officers were also looking into sound recordings sent from a smart watch Khashoggi was wearing when he entered the consulate to a mobile phone he gave to his Turkish fiancee outside, Hatice Cengiz.
Turkish daily Milliyet reported "arguments and shouting" could be heard on the recordings.
IMF chief Christine Lagarde said on Saturday she was "horrified" by the allegations, while US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin expressed "concern".
But both said that for now they still planned to attend an October 23-25 conference in Riyadh, dubbed "Davos in the Desert" after the World Economic Forum in the Swiss resort.
"The answer is for now I am" still going, Mnuchin said. "If more information comes out over the next week, I will obviously take that into account."
Lagarde said she had to "conduct the business of the IMF in all corners in the world".
"So at this point of time my intention is to not change my plans and to be very attentive to the information that is coming out in the next few days."
Bloomberg, the Financial Times, The Economist and The New York Times withdrew as the event's media sponsors, while the CEO of ride-hailing app Uber, Dara Khosrowshahi said he would no longer be attending unless "a substantially different set of facts emerges".