Turkish officials on Sunday demanded a “convincing explanation” from Saudi Arabia over the alleged killing of a dissident who disappeared during a visit to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, sharply escalating tensions between two of the Middle East’s most important powers.
The dissident, Jamal Khashoggi, is a veteran Saudi journalist and commentator who had turned critical of the Kingdom under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
After fleeing the kingdom last year for voluntary exile because he feared arrest, Mr. Khashoggi vanished after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Tuesday to pick up a document that would allow him to remarry in Turkey.
On Saturday, Turkish officials speaking on the condition of anonymity told the New York Times and other news organizations that investigators had concluded Mr. Khashoggi was killed by Saudi agents inside the consulate.
“There is concrete information; it will not remain an unsolved case,” Yasin Aktay, an adviser to the head of Turkey’s ruling AKP party, said Sunday in an interview with the Turkish CNN network. “The consulate should make a clear explanation,” he added, drawing a contrast to a troubled and less-assertive period of Turkey’s recent past. “If they consider Turkey as it was like in the 1990s, they are mistaken.”
Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, did not mention Mr. Khashoggi or Saudi Arabia once during a televised address Sunday. But speaking to reporters afterward, Mr. Erdogan said he was awaiting a prosecutor’s investigation about what had happened to Mr. Khashoggi.
“I am still keeping my good intentions,” he said, adding, “As the President of the Turkish Republic I am following it, chasing it and, whatever conclusions come from here, we will inform the world about it”
The Crown Prince and other Saudi officials have denied killing or abducting Mr. Khashoggi, saying they do not know where he is. And by midafternoon Sunday, no Turkish official had publicly accused Saudi Arabia of killing Mr. Khashoggi.
The discrepancy between the multiple anonymous allegations to the news media and top officials’ public reticence raised questions about whether Ankara would stand behind the leaks or whether it was seeking to avoid what could be a hugely disruptive fight with Riyadh.
The two regional heavyweights and U.S. allies have engaged in a delicate balancing of shared interests and opposing positions, sometimes teaming up to oppose President Bashar Assad in the Syrian conflict, for example, while sparring over Saudi Arabia’s campaign to isolate Qatar and its regional fight against political Islam.
Turkey is in the midst of an economic crisis compounded by a feud with Washington, and Ankara may wish to avoid alienating a rich and influential trading partner like Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia, for its part, released a statement early Sunday dismissing news reports about the accusations of unnamed Turkish officials that Saudi agents had killed Mr. Khashoggi. The consulate in Istanbul “strongly denounced these baseless allegations, and expressed doubt that they came from Turkish officials that are informed of the investigation,” the statement said.
It praised “the brotherly Turkish government” for accepting a Saudi request to send a “security delegation of Saudi investigators” to assist in the inquiry into Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance. “The Kingdom is concerned with the safety and well-being of its citizens wherever they are, and that relevant authorities in the Kingdom are diligently following up on this matter to uncover the complete facts,” the statement continued.
But in an interview with the public broadcaster news channel TRT Haber, Mr. Aktay said: “This is an assault against Turkey’s right of sovereignty. Turkey is expecting a convincing explanation.”
Although Mr. Khashoggi was planning to move to Istanbul, he was also a legal resident of the United States and a contributing columnist for The Washington Post. The U.S. government has so far said that it cannot confirm the reports of what happened to him, but is following the case.
At least one U.S. lawmaker weighed in. Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut said on Twitter, “If this is true – that the Saudis lured a U.S. resident into their consulate and murdered him – it should represent a fundamental break in our relationship with Saudi Arabia.”
Azzam Tamimi, a friend who had lunch with Mr. Khashoggi in London the day before he went to the consulate in Istanbul, said in an interview Sunday that he had been reassured about entering the consulate by his warm reception on an earlier surprise visit.
Mr. Khashoggi had asked for a document needed to remarry in Turkey, Mr. Tamimi said, and the consular staff “were surprised and said, yes, we will do it for you, but there is no time, and they agreed he will come back on Tuesday.”
“He said they were really good; there are just ordinary Saudis and the ordinary Saudis are good people; they don’t necessarily agree with the policies of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.”
Mr. Tamimi said Mr. Khashoggi had sought the document necessary to remarry in Turkey since his exile from Saudi Arabia had resulted in a divorce. The wedding was scheduled for Wednesday, a day after he disappeared in the consulate. His fiancée was waiting outside.
Mr. Khashoggi, in a draft unpublished column that was shared with a translator and obtained by the New York Times, had planned to argue for the importance to the Arab world of developing a free press.
He argued that the Arab Spring uprising had kindled hopes across the Mideast region for a new era of press freedom, but that those aspirations were crushed by a turn toward authoritarianism. Recounting the examples of a journalist and friend jailed in Saudi Arabia and the censorship of a newspaper in Egypt, Mr. Khashoggi wrote, “Everyone is fearful.”
As a partial solution, he proposed that the United States disseminate more of its free news media in Arabic for the benefit of the region, perhaps on the model of Radio Free Europe during the Cold War.
New York Times New Service