Trump: Saudi account 'credible'
US president touts arms deals with ‘great ally’
Saudi Arabia admitted on Saturday that dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed inside its Istanbul consulate, saying he died during a “fistfight", an explanation that President Donald Trump called credible but drew skepticism from top US lawmakers.
Riyadh announced the arrest of 18 Saudis in connection with their investigation and the sacking of two top aides of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has faced mounting international pressure over the journalist's disappearance.
Riyadh provided no evidence to support its account of the circumstances that led to Khashoggi’s death.
59-year-old Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributor and critic of the petro-state's powerful crown prince, was last seen on October 2 entering his country's consulate in Istanbul for paperwork required to marry his Turkish fiancée.
His disappearance had been shrouded in mystery and tipped Saudi Arabia into one of its worst international crises, with Turkish officials accusing it of carrying out a state-sponsored killing and dismembering the body.
The admission – after persistent claims by the Saudi authorities that Khashoggi had left the consulate alive – appears aimed at distancing Prince Mohammed from the affair.
In the latest version of events from Riyadh, Saudi Attorney General Sheikh Saud al-Mojeb said Khashoggi died after talks at the consulate degenerated into an altercation. He did not disclose the whereabouts of the journalist's body.
"Discussions that took place between him and the persons who met him... at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul led to a brawl and a fistfight with the citizen, Jamal Khashoggi, which led to his death," the attorney general said in a statement.
A Saudi official said separately: “A group of Saudis had a physical altercation and Jamal died as a result of the chokehold. They were trying to keep him quiet.”
Deputy intelligence chief Ahmad al-Assiri and royal court media adviser Saud al-Qahtani, both part of Prince Mohammed's inner circle, were sacked.
Khashoggi's fiancée Hatice Cengiz tweeted that her heart was "full of sorrow" at the confirmation of his death.
Saudi officials have roundly denied that Prince Mohammed had any involvement.
But one suspect identified by Turkey was said to be a frequent companion of the young heir to the throne, three others were linked to his security detail and a fifth is a high-level forensic specialist, according to The New York Times.
Some Western governments and politicians gave guarded or skeptical responses to the Saudi explanation, but Middle Eastern allies closed ranks around the kingdom.
Trump swiftly endorsed Saudi Arabia's explanation about the death of Khashoggi and termed it an "important first step".
"I do, I do," Trump said when asked if the Saudis' explanation was credible, while adding: "It's early, we haven't finished our review or investigation."
“Saudi Arabia has been a great ally. What happened is unacceptable.”
Trump said he would speak with the crown prince, the kingdom’s de facto ruler. But Trump again emphasized Riyadh’s role in countering regional rival Iran and the importance of a lucrative US arms sales to Saudi Arabia for American jobs.
Trump had previously said Washington could impose sanctions, but his administration had been notably slow to criticize its Persian Gulf ally despite mounting evidence of what happened to Khashoggi.
Britain said it was considering its “next steps”, while Australia said it pulled out of a planned investment summit in Saudi Arabia in protest at the killing.
"This was a terrible act and those responsible must be held to account," the British Foreign Office said.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is “deeply troubled” by the confirmation of the violent death of Khashoggi, a spokesman said.
Guterres “stresses the need for a prompt, thorough and transparent investigation into the circumstances of Mr. Khashoggi’s death and full accountability for those responsible,” spokesman Stephane Dujarric said in a statement.
Amnesty International said the Saudi explanation appeared to be a whitewash of “an appalling assassination”.
A senior official in Turkey’s ruling party said Saturday Turkey will “never allow a cover-up” of the killing of Khashoggi.
The critical reaction by Numan Kurtulmus, deputy head of the Justice and Development Party, suggested that Turkey was not prepared to go along with the Saudi version of what happened to the writer.
“It’s not possible for the Saudi administration to wiggle itself out of this crime if it’s confirmed,” Kurtulmus said. He also said that Turkey would share its evidence of Khashoggi’s killing with the world and that a “conclusive result” of the investigation is close.
Turkish authorities widened their probe on Friday, searching a forest in Istanbul where the body might have been dumped.
Turkish investigators are likely to find out what happened to Khashoggi’s body “before long”, a senior Turkish official said on Saturday.
Turkish sources say the authorities have an audio recording purportedly documenting Khashoggi’s murder inside the consulate.
Pro-government newspaper Yeni Safak, citing the audio, said his torturers cut off his fingers during an interrogation and later beheaded him.
The state of the body when found, could make it difficult to ascertain whether the Saudi account of the killing is accurate if it has indeed been dismembered.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, an influential Trump ally, said he doubted the latest admission from Saudi authorities.
"To say that I am skeptical of the new Saudi narrative about Mr. Khashoggi is an understatement," he tweeted.
Democrat Senator Jack Reed, said the Saudis were still not forthcoming with the truth. “This appears to have been a deliberate, planned act followed by a cover-up,” he said.
AFP, Reuters and AP contributed to this story.