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Erdogan, Trump step up pressure over missing Saudi journalist

Members of Human Rights Association (IHD) hold portraits of missing journalist Jamal Khashoggi reading “Jamal Khashoggi is missing since October 2” during a demonstration outside Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul on October 9, 2018. – Veteran Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who has been critical of the government, went missing a week ago after visiting the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul. Turkish officials believe he was murdered inside the consulate. Riyadh vehemently denies the claim, saying he left the compound on his own. (Photo by BULENT KILIC / AFP)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan urged Saudi Arabia to release footage of Jamal Khashoggi and President Donald Trump demanded answers over his fate, as the kingdom faced growing pressure Thursday to provide a convincing explanation for the journalist’s disappearance.

The Washington Post, the daily to which Khashoggi was a contributor, added to the mystery by reporting Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had ordered an operation to “lure” the critical journalist back home.

Khashoggi has not been seen since October 2 when he went to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to obtain official documents for his upcoming marriage. Turkish officials quoted in media have said he was killed but Riyadh denies that.

The mystery has captivated the world but also threatens to harm brittle Turkish-Saudi relations and hurt efforts by the crown prince to improve the image of his country with a reform drive.

Erdogan challenged Saudi Arabia to provide CCTV images to back up its account that Khashoggi had left the consulate safely, indicating he did not find the current 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 told Turkish reporters in comments published in newspapers.

“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.

The consulate said CCTV cameras were not working that day and dismissed the murder claims as “baseless”.

‘Demanding everything’
The case is also threatening the strong relationship the Trump administration has built with Prince Mohammed, who wants to turn the oil-rich conservative kingdom into a hub for innovation and reform.

The two sides have worked together on challenging Iran despite growing concern over the prince’s campaign against dissidents, which critics say has revealed the true face of his rule.

In a reversal from Washington’s initial low-key response, Trump reaffirmed that he has to “find out what happened”.

“We can’t let it happen. And we’re being very tough and we have investigators over there and we’re working with Turkey and frankly we’re working with Saudi Arabia,” Trump said in an interview with “Fox and Friends”.

Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary of key Saudi ally and trade partner, Britain, warned there would be “serious consequences” if the allegations were true.

“People who have long thought of themselves as Saudi’s friends are saying this is a very, very serious matter,” he told AFP.

Khashoggi is a former government adviser who fled Saudi Arabia in September 2017 and lived in the US 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.

‘Cannot remain silent’
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 the powerful crown prince.

“It’s not possible for us to stay silent regarding an incident like this,” Erdogan said.

He added that it would “not be right” to comment yet but said he had “concerns”.

Ankara and Riyadh have worked over recent years to maintain cordial relations despite disputes on key issues, such as the ousting of the Islamist Egyptian government and the blockade on Turkey’s key regional ally Qatar.

Friends of Khashoggi told the Washington Post that for several months, senior Saudi officials were offering him protection, “even a high-level job working for the government” if the critic returned to the kingdom. Khashoggi was sceptical of such offers.

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.

After images of the men and their names were published by pro-government Sabah daily, media identified most of them as senior figures in Riyadh or close to the crown prince.

Turkish authorities have been given permission to search the consulate — Saudi sovereign territory — but it has not yet taken place.

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