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Trump demands answers; Turkish paper identifies Saudi intel team

ISTANBUL: This video grab made yesterday from CCTV footage obtained from Turkish news agency DHA shows a Saudi team at the airport on Oct 2, 2018. — AFP

WASHINGTON: US President Donald Trump said yesterday he has talked to Saudi authorities “at the highest level” to demand answers over what happened to vanished journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Trump told reporters at the White House that he has talked to the Saudi leadership “more than once” since Khashoggi, a US resident and Washington Post contributor, vanished on Oct 2 after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. “We’re demanding everything. We want to see what’s going on there,” he said. “It’s a very serious situation for us and this White House … I think we’ll get to the bottom of it. We cannot let this happen, to reporters, to anybody,” Trump said.

These were the toughest comments coming out of the Trump administration since the mysterious disappearance of the journalist, who Turkish authorities suspect was abducted and murdered. Turkish investigators are examining CCTV footage showing the moment he entered the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul to obtain documents ahead of his marriage to his Turkish fiancee Hatice Cengiz. Cengiz appealed to Trump in an opinion piece for the Washington Post on Tuesday, calling on him to “help shed light on Jamal’s disappearance”. Trump said that he and First Lady Melania Trump were in contact with her and were looking to “bring her to the White House”.

Turkish government sources said at the weekend that police believed Khashoggi was killed by a team specially sent to Istanbul and thought to consist of 15 Saudis. Security camera footage released yesterday by Turkish television showed a man believed to be Khashoggi enter the consulate. Investigators are also zooming in on a vehicle seen entering and leaving the building after Khashoggi went inside. But Riyadh insisted the 59-year-old journalist had left the building and that murder claims are “baseless”.

Khashoggi, a former Saudi government adviser, had been living in the United States since last year fearing arrest. He has been critical of some policies of the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Riyadh’s intervention in the war in Yemen. Turkish police were looking into two private aircraft that landed at Istanbul’s Ataturk airport on Oct 2 at different times carrying the individuals of interest in the case. A source told the Washington Post that US intelligence “intercepted communications of Saudi officials discussing a plan to capture him”. The same source said the Saudis hoped to “lure” Khashoggi to Saudi Arabia “and lay hands on him there”.

One of the first images from the CCTV footage shared by 24 TV broadcaster showed Khashoggi enter the consulate at 1:14 pm (1014 GMT). Footage also showed some of the Saudis arriving in Istanbul after the first plane landed before 0030 GMT on Oct 2 and the men later checking into a hotel near the consulate. Aksam daily said some of the men went into the Saudi consulate before Khashoggi. According to the images, a vehicle that went inside the consulate was then driven to the consul-general’s residence nearby after 1200 GMT, two hours after Khashoggi had entered the mission. Aksam newspaper’s editor-in-chief Murat Kelkitlioglu speculated on 24 TV that it was “almost certain” that Khashoggi had been taken in the vehicle.

Local media on Tuesday reported on the possibility that Khashoggi was kidnapped and taken aboard one of the private planes. Both planes later returned to Riyadh with one stopping in Dubai and the other in Egypt, pro-government Sabah daily said. According to Hurriyet daily, nine Saudis who arrived in Istanbul on the same day that the journalist vanished, had bought luggage at the Grand Bazaar. However, a police search revealed that they did not take the luggage on their return.

Sabah daily yesterday published the names and images of what it called the “assassination team” including a man called Salah Muhammed Al-Tubaigy whose name it said matched that of a lieutenant-colonel who has worked at the Saudi interior ministry for 20 years, according to a LinkedIn profile and Saudi media, and serves on the board of the Saudi Society of Forensic Medicine. Other names and photos of the 15, who Sabah said travelled on diplomatic passports, match officers in the Saudi army and air force, as identified by previous Saudi media reports and in one case a Facebook profile. Sabah added that no “body parts” appeared on scans of the belongings of seven passengers of relevance to the case at Istanbul airport. Turkey has said Saudi authorities gave officials the green light to search the consulate but it has not yet taken place.

In his last interview three days before his disappearance, Khashoggi said that he did not think he would return to Saudi Arabia. “When I hear of the arrest of a friend who did nothing that (deserved being) arrested, it makes me feel I shouldn’t go,” he told the BBC. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said in a statement that between 25 and 30 professional and non-professional journalists are currently detained in Saudi Arabia. RSF said at least 15 Saudi journalists and bloggers have been arrested since September 2017.

Cases included that of Saleh Al-Shihi, a journalist whose arrest was only confirmed in February when his family learned he had been sentenced to five years in prison, RSF said. He disappeared in Dec 2017, but his detention was not revealed until his conviction and sentence were announced in the kingdom, the organization added. Economist and citizen-journalist Essam Al-Zamel was put on trial this month for criticizing the government’s economic strategy in a series of tweets and reports. It was only then officially confirmed he has been in jail for the past year.

Another journalist and commentator, Turad al-Amri, has been missing since Nov 2016 after protesting in a tweet to a clampdown on Saudi media, including the blocking of an online newspaper for which he had written. Fayez bin Damakh, another reporter and poet, has also been reported missing since Sept 2017 when he was about to launch a TV news channel in neighboring Kuwait. Local press reports suggested he was abducted and taken to Saudi Arabia, though this has never been confirmed. – Agencies

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