19 Oct 2018

Trump says it 'certainly looks' like Saudi journalist is dead

1:01 pm on 19 October 2018

President Donald Trump says he presumes missing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi is dead and that the US response to Saudi Arabia will likely be "very severe".

US President Donald Trump speaks to reporters.

US President Donald Trump speaks to reporters. Photo: AFP

Turkish police are searching a forest on the outskirts of Istanbul for the remains of Mr Khashoggi, more than two weeks after he vanished after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, two senior Turkish officials told Reuters.

Mr Trump, who has forged closer ties with Saudi Arabia and the 33-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, acknowledged for the first time today that Mr Khashoggi, a US resident and Washington Post columnist, had likely been killed.

"It certainly looks that way to me. It's very sad," Mr Trump told reporters. In an interview with the New York Times, Mr Trump based his acknowledgment that Mr Khashoggi was dead on intelligence reports.

Turkish officials have said they believe Mr Khashoggi was murdered at the consulate and his body chopped up and removed. Riyadh strongly denies the allegations and said it is investigating the disappearance of the journalist, who was critical of Saudi rulers, calling for reforms.

Mr Trump spoke hours after receiving an update from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on the results of Mr Pompeo's emergency talks in Saudi Arabia and Turkey this week.

In the New York Times interview, Mr Trump also expressed confidence in intelligence reports that suggest a high-level Saudi role in the suspected killing of Mr Khashoggi.

However, Mr Trump said it was still "a little bit early" to draw definitive conclusions about who may have been behind it.

A Turkish forensic police officer searches for evidence at the Saudi Arabian consulate on October 17, 2018 in Istanbul.

A Turkish forensic police officer searches for evidence at the Saudi Arabian consulate on October 17, 2018 in Istanbul. Photo: AFP

Mr Pompeo told reporters he advised Mr Trump that Saudi Arabia should be given a few more days to complete its investigation into the disappearance of the journalist, which has caused an international outcry and strained Saudi relations with western countries and corporations.

Mr Trump said he was waiting for the results so that "we can get to the bottom of this very soon" and that he would be making a statement about it at some point.

Asked what would be the consequences for Saudi Arabia, Mr Trump said: "Well, it'll have to be very severe. I mean, it's bad, bad stuff. But we'll see what happens."

The United States considers Riyadh a linchpin in efforts to contain Iran's regional influence and a key global oil source, and Mr Trump has shown no inclination to mete out harsh punishment to the Saudis. The United States and other Western nations are in a dilemma of how to respond because of lucrative business ties, including weapons sales to Riyadh.

Referring to the Saudis, Mr Pompeo said he told the president that when the Saudi investigation was completed "we can make decisions about how - or if - the United States should respond to the incident surrounding Mr Khashoggi."

CCTV footage obtained from Turkish news agency DHA shows Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi (R) arriving at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul on 2 October, 2018.

CCTV footage obtained from Turkish news agency DHA shows Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi (R) arriving at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul on 2 October, 2018. Photo: AFP / DHA

By casting doubt on whether the United States will respond at all, Mr Pompeo reflected the internal struggle among Mr Trump and his national security advisers on what to do should the Saudi leadership be blamed for what happened to the journalist.

"I think it's important for us all to remember, too - we have a long, since 1932, a long strategic relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia," Mr Pompeo told reporters, also calling Saudi Arabia "an important counterterrorism partner."

A US government source said US intelligence agencies are increasingly convinced of the crown prince's culpability in the operation against Mr Khashoggi, which they believe resulted in his death.

US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin abandoned plans to attend an 23-25 October investor conference in Riyadh as did executives from Goldman Sachs Group Inc., putting the high-profile event in question.

"This incident is unacceptable and clearly they have to answer questions specifically regarding this incident," Goldman Sachs chief executive David Solomon told CNBC.

Earlier, senior government ministers from France, Britain and the Netherlands also withdrew from the Riyadh conference, joining a list of international officials and business executives.

How Western allies deal with Riyadh will hinge on the extent to which they believe responsibility for Mr Khashoggi's disappearance lies with Prince Mohammed and the Saudi authorities.

Mr Trump previously speculated without providing evidence that "rogue killers" could be responsible.

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Photo: AFP

Police search forest, rural location

After investigations at the Saudi consulate and the consul's residence, Turkish authorities have widened the geographic focus of the search, the senior Turkish officials said. Investigators tracked the routes and stops of cars that left those two places on 2 October, the officials said.

Mr Khashoggi's killers may have dumped his remains in Belgrad Forest adjacent to Istanbul, and at a rural location near the city of Yalova, a 90km drive south of Istanbul, the officials said.

"The investigations led to some suspicion that his remains may be in the city of Yalova and the Belgrad forest, police have been searching these areas," one of the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity. A "farm house or villa" may have been used for the disposal of remains, the official said.

The pro-government Sabah newspaper published a series of photos of a man it identified as someone who travels with the Saudi crown prince. The time-stamped photos showed the man outside the Saudi consulate building in Istanbul on the morning Mr Khashoggi disappeared, Sabah said.

Mr Khashoggi went to the consulate seeking documents for his planned marriage to his Turkish fiancee, who was waiting outside, and was never seen again.