ISTANBUL — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday called the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi “very, very upsetting” but stopped short of confirming reports that Khashoggi had been killed inside Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul last week.
The Washington Post reported Saturday that Turkish investigators had concluded that Khashoggi, a critic of the Saudi leadership, had been killed inside the consulate Tuesday by a team sent from Saudi Arabia. A person familiar with the investigation called it a “preplanned murder.”
A U.S. official confirmed that Turkey’s government had determined that Khashoggi was probably killed inside the consulate by a team that arrived on two private jets. Turkish officials further concluded that his body was probably dismembered, removed in boxes and flown out of the country, the official said.
Saudi Arabia has denied the accusations, calling them “baseless,” and said that Khashoggi, 59, left the consulate soon after he arrived.
The suspected murder of Khashoggi, a contributor to The Washington Post’s Global Opinions section, could flare tensions between Saudi Arabia and Turkey, two regional powers whose rivalry has played out across the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is wary of Turkey’s expanding military power in the Persian Gulf, its support for political Islamists and its cooperation in the Syrian war with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s archrival. Turkey was alarmed by the Saudi leadership’s support for a military coup against former Egyptian president and Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi in 2013.
Erdogan, who spoke to reporters Sunday after a speech in the capital, Ankara, said that Khashoggi was “actually a journalist I have known for a long time, a friend of ours.” He added, “God willing, we will not come face to face with a situation that we do not desire.”
Erdogan did not elaborate, despite the confirmation by two people familiar with the Turkish investigation that it had concluded Khashoggi was dead.
“I think he’s really trying to give the Saudis a way to gracefully exit,” said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, suggesting that Erdogan might be giving the Saudis a chance to apologize.
“Turkey is so isolated in the Middle East. And at the same time, Turkey’s economy is going through a rough patch,” Cagaptay said. “I think it is trying to avoid a fight with yet another regional power — the Saudis — that would have economic ramifications given Turkey’s financial doldrums.”
Before Erdogan’s speech, Yasin Aktay, a presidential adviser, told the Reuters news agency that Khashoggi had been killed in the consulate and that a team of 15 Saudi nationals were “most certainly involved.”
His comments represented the first on-the-record confirmation that Turkey believes the journalist was killed, and they added to the pressure on the Saudi government to explain Khashoggi’s fate.
On Sunday night, Washington Post Publisher Fred Ryan met for an hour and 20 minutes with Prince Khalid bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, to express his “profound concern” about Khashoggi’s whereabouts. Ryan told the ambassador that The Post will be “relentless in pursuing this matter” until a final determination regarding his fate. If his disappearance were found to be the result of “state action,” Ryan told the ambassador, “it would be the most depraved and oppressive act against a journalist in modern history.”
Khashoggi, who was once close to the Saudi establishment but lived for the past year in self-imposed exile in the United States, first visited the consulate on Sept. 28 to obtain a document related to his upcoming wedding. He returned to the consulate Tuesday about 1:30 p.m., concerned he might be prevented from leaving, his fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, said.
After waiting more than four hours for Khashoggi to emerge, Cengiz called the police, she said.
“There is precise information. This case will not go unsolved,” Aktay said Sunday in an interview broadcast on CNN Turk. He suggested Saudi claims that Khashoggi left the consulate — but that the Saudis did not have video footage of his departure — were insincere.
“If they think that Turkey is like what it was in the 1990s, they are mistaken,” he said in the interview, referring to a period in which civilians were disappeared in Turkey and their bodies never recovered. Many state officials were never held accountable for the crimes.
The Saudi Consulate, he said, “must make a clear statement” about what happened to the journalist.
Rights groups and press freedom advocates also called on the Saudi government to immediately account for Khashoggi’s whereabouts.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, a press freedom organization, said Saudi authorities “must immediately give a full and credible account of what happened to Khashoggi inside its diplomatic mission.”
If confirmed, Khashoggi’s killing would “constitute a horrific, utterly deplorable, and absolutely unacceptable assault on press freedom,” the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders tweeted.
PEN America, which promotes free expression around the world, also called on Saudi authorities to produce Khashoggi immediately if they “wish to counter these claims.”
“The reported state-sponsored assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi is a shocking abomination,” PEN America’s Senior Director of Free Expression Programs Summer Lopez said in a statement. “If Khashoggi was indeed murdered inside a diplomatic facility, it is an act of terror . . . intended to intimidate any who would speak out against the Saudi government,” Lopez said.
Zeynep Karatas contributed to this report.