ISTANBUL — The Saudi government acknowledged early Saturday that journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed while visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, saying he died during a fist fight.
The announcement, which came in a tweet from the Saudi foreign ministry, said that an initial investigation by the government’s general prosecutor found that Khashoggi been in discussions with people inside the consulate when a quarrel broke out, escalating to a fatal fist fight.
The Saudi government said it had fired five top officials and arrested 18 other Saudis as a result of the initial investigation. Those fired included Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s adviser Saud al-Qahtani and deputy intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri.
The announcement marks the first time that Saudi officials have acknowledged that Kashoggi was killed inside the consulate. Ever since he disappeared on Oct. 2 while visiting the mission, Saudi officials have repeatedly said that he left the consulate alive and that they had no information about his whereabouts or fate.
Turkish investigators had concluded days ago that Khashoggi, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post was killed and dismembered by a Saudi team dispatched to Istanbul.
Earlier Friday, Turkish prosecutors questioned staff at the Saudi Consulate, state media said, suggesting attempts to strengthen a possible criminal case with insider details from the last place journalist Jamal Khashoggi was seen alive.
An undisclosed number consulate employees in Istanbul were interviewed by prosecutors, the semiofficial Anadolu news agency reported, a day after Turkish authorities began combing through wooded areas outside Istanbul in an apparent search for Khashoggi’s remains.
Turkish officials say that Khashoggi — a U.S. resident — was killed by a 15-member Saudi hit squad after he entered the consulate on Oct. 2.
The refocus on the consulate employees suggests that investigators are seeking to bolster a possible criminal case. Turkish officials say they also have an audio tape that purports to record Khashoggi’s killing, but the tape has not been shared with American or Saudi officials.
The disappearance of Khashoggi has provoked global criticism of Saudi Arabia’s de-facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and convulsed the kingdom as it struggles to respond to increasing international pressure to explain the journalist’s fate.
Turkish media reports said more than a dozen Turkish staff members of the consulate – including technicians, drivers, telephone operators and accountants – were being interviewed by prosecutors.
Their accounts could provide valuable insights into the movements of Saudi officials at the mission in the hours and days before and after Khashoggi vanished.
It was not clear why the investigators waited more than two weeks to conduct the interviews, but the move comes a day after Turkish officials said they are searching two wooded areas just outside Istanbul for possible remains.
Until recently, the inquiry has focused on the consulate in Istanbul’s Levent district and the nearby residence of the Saudi consul general, Mohammed al-Otaibi, who left Turkey this week.
Earlier Friday, Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said his country has not provided the audio recording of Khashoggi’s alleged killing to American officials but promised that Turkey would “share with the world” the results of its investigation, according to Anadolu.
On Thursday, President Donald Trump said Khashoggi is likely dead and warned of “very severe” measure against Saudi Arabia if they are found to be responsible.
Several of the 15 Saudi suspects who were in Istanbul when Khashoggi went missing have close links to Saudi Arabia’s security forces. Some had social media posts self-identifying as being members of Mohammed’s Royal Guard – raising questions about whether the crown prince had any knowledge of a plan to target Khashoggi.
A person close to the White House said on Thursday Saudi officials are considering a plan to shield Mohammed from scrutiny and culpability by blaming Khashoggi’s apparent death on an operation ordered by on Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri, the deputy head of Saudi intelligence and a close adviser to the crown prince.
The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak on behalf of the administration or the Saudi government.
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