The president has vowed “very severe” consequences if the Saudi government is found responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. He was last seen entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Turkish crime-scene investigators expanded their search for the remains of missing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi to a forest on the outskirts of Istanbul, Turkish media reported on Friday.
Khashoggi was last seen entering Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic compound 17 days ago. No evidence has surfaced to prove he ever left and audio and video recordings obtained by Turkish security officials indicate he may have been dismembered inside the consulate.
Search teams probing Khashoggi’s disappearance have now started scouring Belgrade Forest for his remains because they believe several vehicles owned by the consulate drove to the area on Oct. 2 — the day Khashoggi vanished — according Yeni Safak, a pro-government newspaper. The forest is located about 20 miles outside Istanbul.
It is the first time investigators have begun looking outside Istanbul for evidence of Khashoggi’s remains. For the last two weeks, the focus has been on the consulate and Saudi consul’s general residence. Investigators have also dug up gardens and poured over surveillance images to build up a picture of Khashoggi’s final movements as well as those of 15 Saudi nationals suspected of involvement in his disappearance.
The apparent development comes as President Donald Trump has seemed to shift his thinking on the case. Asked late Thursday if he thought the Saudi dissident was dead, the president said it “certainly looks that way to me” and vowed “very severe” consequences for Saudi Arabia if it is proved to be behind Khashoggi’s murder.
It’s an about-face that follows heavy criticism of Trump for appearing in recent days to prioritize the U.S. security relationship with the Middle Eastern country over what Turkish reports indicate may be an extrajudicial execution carried out by members of an assassination squad with ties to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Trump said he wants to wait for Saudi Arabia and Turkey to conclude their investigations before deciding on what action to take. Turkey believes Khashoggi, a prominent critic of Saudi Arabia who was a U.S. resident at the time of his disappearance, was murdered inside the consulate. The Saudis deny the allegation.
Amid rising international condemnation over the affair, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has urged patience. After returning Wednesday from an answers-seeking trip to Riyadh and Ankara he said the Saudis should be given “a few more days” to complete their investigation. Pompeo also denied claims that while on his trip he heard Turkey’s audio evidence of Khashoggi’s alleged torture and murder inside the consulate.
The New York Times reported late Thursday that the Saudis may be preparing to blame Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri, an adviser to the crown prince, for Khashoggi’s killing. The paper said the monarchy may claim that the general was given go-ahead from the crown prince to detain Khashoggi for an interrogation in Saudi Arabia, but that he either misunderstood the instructions or overstepped his authorization and killed Khashoggi.
Saudi experts, dissidents, U.S. congressional figures and leading human rights organizations say this would amount to scapegoating. “U.N. involvement is the best guarantee against a Saudi whitewash or attempts by other governments to sweep the issue under the carpet to preserve lucrative business ties with Riyadh,” Robert Mahoney, deputy executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, said.
Contributing: David Jackson
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