DUBAI/ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia's public prosecutor said on Thursday the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom's Istanbul consulate was premeditated, reversing previous official statements that the killing was unintended.
The death of Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and critic of de facto Saudi ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has sparked global outrage and mushroomed into a crisis for the world's top oil exporter and strategic ally of the West.
The Saudi disclosure came after CIA director Gina Haspel heard an audio recording of the killing during a fact-finding visit to Turkey this week. The spy chief was due to brief President Donald Trump about Khashoggi on Thursday.
Saudi officials initially denied having anything to do with Khashoggi's disappearance after he entered the consulate on Oct. 2, before changing the official account to say an internal investigation suggested he was accidentally killed in a botched operation to return him to the kingdom.
On Thursday, Saudi state TV quoted the Saudi public prosecutor as saying the killing was premeditated, and that prosecutors were interrogating suspects on the basis of information provided by a joint Saudi-Turkish task force.
"Information from the Turkish side affirms that the suspects in Khashoggi's case premeditated their crime," said the statement carried by state TV.
Turkey and Western allies of Riyadh have voiced deep scepticism about Saudi explanations of the killing.
Turkish officials suspect Khashoggi, 59, was killed inside the consulate by Saudi agents and his body cut up. Turkish sources say authorities have an audio recording purportedly documenting the murder.
Pro-government Turkish newspaper Yeni Safak, citing the audio, has said his torturers cut off his fingers during an interrogation and later beheaded him.
The CIA's Haspel heard an audio recording of Khashoggi's death during a trip to Turkey this week, sources told Reuters. It was not clear what could be heard on the tape. Representatives for the CIA and Turkish intelligence declined to comment.
It was the first indication Ankara has shared its key investigative evidence.
"We have shared with those who sought additional information some of the information and findings that the prosecutor has allowed us to share," Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters, without giving details.
Trump, the kingdom's staunchest Western ally, was quoted by the Wall Street Journal as saying Prince Mohammed bore ultimate responsibility for the operation that led to Khashoggi's death.
How Western allies deal with Riyadh will hinge on the extent to which they believe responsibility for Khashoggi's death lies directly with the prince and the Saudi authorities.
Saudi Arabia has detained 18 people and dismissed five senior government officials as part of the investigation into Khashoggi's murder. Some were members of a 15-man hit team, many of them Saudi intelligence operatives, who flew into Istanbul hours before Khashoggi's death, Turkish security sources say.
Turkish police were investigating water samples from a well at the consulate on Thursday after initially being denied access, broadcaster CNN Turk said.
King Salman, who has delegated the day-to-day running of Saudi Arabia to the crown prince, on Saturday ordered a restructuring of the general intelligence agency.
Saudi state news agency SPA said on Thursday that Prince Mohammed had presided over the first meeting of a committee to carry out that restructuring.
The prince promised on Wednesday the killers would be brought to justice, his first public comments on the matter.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has called Khashoggi's murder a "savage killing" and demanded Riyadh punish those responsible, no matter how highly placed. Cavusoglu said Turkey had no intention of taking the Khashoggi case to an international court but would share information if an international inquiry were launched.
Saudi Arabia is the lynchpin of a U.S.-backed regional bloc against Iran but the crisis has strained Riyadh's relations with the West. Dozens of Western officials, bankers and company executives shunned a big investment conference in Riyadh this week.
But striking a defiant tone, the crown prince told international investors at the three-day conference on Wednesday that the furore would not derail the kingdom's reform drive.
"We will prove to the world that the two governments (Saudi and Turkish) are cooperating to punish any criminal, any culprit, and at the end justice will prevail," he said to applause.
Britain, like the United States a major weapons supplier to the kingdom, has described Riyadh's explanations for the killing as lacking credibility. France has said it will consider sanctions against Saudi Arabia if its intelligence services find Riyadh was behind Khashoggi's death.
For their part, the Trump administration and the U.S. defence industry are scrambling to save the few actual deals in a much-touted $110 billion arms package for Saudi Arabia.
Khashoggi's eldest son, Salah, has flown out of Saudi Arabia, two sources close to the family said on Thursday. The younger Khashoggi, who one source said holds dual U.S.-Saudi citizenship and had thus far been under a travel ban, departed on Wednesday. The sources declined to disclose his destination or other details of his departure.
(Reporting by Asma Alsharif and Tuqa Khalid in Dubai; Ali Kucukgocmen and Tulay Karadeniz in Ankara; Mark Hosenball and Susan Heavey in Washington; Writing by Mark Heinrich and Alistair Bell; Editing by Nick Tattersall and James Dalgleish)
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Updated Date: Oct 26, 2018 00:06:25 IST