Saudi Arabia sent two experts to Istanbul with the specific aim of covering up evidence after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at its consulate in Istanbul, a Turkish official said on Monday.
More than a month after the Saudi royal-insider-turned critic was killed inside the mission on October 2, Turkey has still yet to recover the remains amid claims that his body was dissolved in acid.
The killing of the 59-year-old has severely dented the kingdom’s image in the West and put powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on the defensive.
“We believe that the two individuals came to Turkey for the sole purpose of covering up evidence of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder before the Turkish police were allowed to search the premises,” a senior Turkish official said, asking not to be named.
The official confirmed a report in the Sabah newspaper saying that chemicals expert Ahmad Abdulaziz al-Janobi and toxicology expert Khaled Yahya al-Zahrani were among a team sent from Saudi Arabia purportedly to investigate the murder last month.
The report said they visited the consulate every day from their arrival on October 11 until October 17. Saudi Arabia only allowed Turkish police to finally search the consulate on October 15.
After weeks of allegations in pro-government media, Turkey’s chief prosecutor last week confirmed Khashoggi was strangled as soon as he entered the consulate and the body was dismembered.
But despite intensive searches by Turkish police, there is still no trace of his remains.
The sons of Khashoggi, Salah and Abdullah, told CNN they wanted Saudi Arabia to return the body so that he could be buried in Medina with the rest of his family.
Turkey’s allegation of the deployment of a “clean-up” team came after Yasin Aktay, an advisor to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, hinted Friday that the body may even have been destroyed in acid.
Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay told the official Anadolu news agency Monday that “all those reports should be investigated”.
Although Riyadh has arrested 18 individuals on suspicion of involvement, the key question remains over who gave the order to kill Khashoggi.
In an editorial published in The Washington Post Friday, Erdogan said it came from “the highest levels” of the Saudi government, while he did “not believe for a second” that Saudi’s King Salman had ordered the crime.
Turkish media have pointed the finger at powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and analysts have said Ankara is keen to have the heir sidelined from the nexus of power in Riyadh.
“Yes, a murder was committed and it was premeditated. Who gave the command for this murder to be carried out on Turkish soil?” Oktay echoed the president’s question in Monday’s interview.
However, Erdogan has yet to directly accuse Prince Mohammed, who has condemned the murder “a repulsive incident”.
The unnamed Turkish official said Monday: “The fact that a clean-up team was dispatched from Saudi Arabia nine days after the murder suggests that Khashoggi’s slaying was within the knowledge of top Saudi official.”
Saudi Attorney General Sheikh Saud al-Mojeb met with Turkish authorities last week in Istanbul.
But this visit appeared to be a fiasco, with the Saudi official refusing to share information from Riyadh’s own investigation, according to Turkish officials.
Prince Mohammed had been heralded in some quarters before the murder as a modern Arab reformer spearheading a bold vision to transform the country and make it less dependent on energy resources.
That image has now been severely battered. There is also a new international focus on Saudi’s involvement in the war in Yemen where 14 million people now stand at the brink of famine in Yemen in what the United Nations has called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
The outrage has alarmed business leaders seeking a foothold in the crown prince’s reform drive but many have insisted they have no intention of pulling out.
Masayoshi Son, the head of Japanese firm SoftBank which has major investments in Saudi Arabia, on Monday condemned the killing but indicated he would continue to do business with the kingdom.
“As horrible as this event was, we cannot turn our backs on the Saudi people as we work to help them in their continued efforts to reform and modernise their society.”