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US officials voice concern over missing Saudi journalist

Chorus of comments by US indicates level of anxiety over Jamal Khashoggi's fate and effect on Saudi American relations.

US President Donald Trump expressed concern about the fate of prominent Saudi journalist and regime critic Jamal Khashoggi, who vanished after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last week.

"I am concerned. I don't like hearing about it. Hopefully, that will sort itself out," Trump told reporters at the White House. 

"Right now, nobody knows anything about it. There are some pretty bad stories going around. I do not like it."

Khashoggi, a US resident, has written articles over the past year critical of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. On the eve of his planned marriage to a Turkish woman, he entered the consulate on October 2 and has not been seen since.  

Turkish officials have said he was murdered inside the building. Riyadh denies that and claims he left the compound on his own.

US Vice President Mike Pence also waded into the controversy over the disappeared Saudi, saying "the free world deserves answers".

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said Riyadh must provide "honest answers" about the journalist.

"We agree that if there was any truth to the allegations of wrongdoing by the Saudi government it would be devastating to the US-Saudi relationship and there will be a heavy price to be paid - economically and otherwise," Graham tweeted.

"Our country's values should be and must be a cornerstone of our foreign policy with foes and allies alike," he said.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for a thorough and open probe by Saudi Arabia.

"We call on the government of Saudi Arabia to support a thorough investigation of Mr Khashoggi's disappearance and to be transparent about the results of that investigation," Pompeo said in a statement.

US-based political analyst Bill Schneider said that the chorus of comments by American officials indicates the level concern over the journalist's fate, and how it could affect the close relationship between Trump and Saudi leaders.

"They're under pressure from members of Congress and the press. Members of Congress are talking about an investigation … The result is there is pressure domestically to look into this matter," said Schneider.

'Cannot save themselves'

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Monday that Saudi officials must prove that Khashoggi left the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. 

"We have to get an outcome from this investigation as soon as possible. The consulate officials cannot save themselves by simply saying 'he has left'," Erdogan said.

The 59-year-old contributor to the Washington Post spent last year in the United States in self-imposed exile after he fled Saudi Arabia amid a crackdown on intellectuals and activists who criticised the policies of Prince Mohammed. He was last seen by his fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, entering the consulate to obtain a document needed for their marriage. She and Turkish officials say he never emerged, even though Saudi Arabia insists he left the building.

Turkish authorities have said they believe Khashoggi was most likely killed inside the consulate building and his body later removed from the premises, though they haven't provided any evidence.

The Washington Post also pressured the administration to investigate.  

"If Mr. Khashoggi was murdered inside the consulate, it will cast the Saudi regime and its de facto ruler - Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman - in a new and disturbing light and require a thorough re-evaluation of US-Saudi relations," the newspaper said in an op-ed.

Khashoggi, 59, has had a long career as a senior journalist in Saudi Arabia and also as an adviser to top officials.  

But since the emergence of Prince Mohammed, 33, as the centre of power in the kingdom last year, Khashoggi has been openly critical of the monarchy.

He has assailed the prince's reforms as hollow, accusing him of introducing a new Saudi era of "fear, intimidation, arrests and public shaming".

'A delicate balance'

Killing someone such as Khashoggi - who long had ties to the royal family and the Saudi intelligence apparatus - in a consulate would be a major escalation in the prince's rise.

Ties between Turkey and Saudi Arabia are at a low point over Ankara's support for Qatar last year in its dispute with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations. Turkey sent food to Qatar and deployed troops at its military base there.

Saudi Arabia is also annoyed by Ankara's rapprochement with its regional rival, Iran.

"Turkey is maintaining a very delicate balance in its relations with Saudi Arabia. The relations have the potential of evolving into a crisis at any moment," said Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director of the German Marshall Fund's Ankara office.

He expected a measured response from Turkey, which is suffering a currency crisis and would be reluctant to chase away investment from Saudi Arabia or other Gulf states.

Ankara would likely wait and see what Washington's reaction to the disappearance would be, before initiating any action against Saudi Arabia, Unluhisarcikli added.

Sultan al-Saad al-Qahtani, the editor of the Riyadh Post website and a supporter of the crown prince, called the situation "a Hollywood movie scenario".

"There is no country that kills opponents of its policy inside an official building in a foreign country," he said. "The responsibility of preserving Mr Khashoggi's life rests with the Turkish government."

Journalists and activists gathered outside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul also demanded information on Khashoggi's fate.

"We demand from the international community to pressure Saudi Arabia and Mohammed bin Salman to tell us exactly what happened," said Mohamed Okad, a friend of Khashoggi and founder of Insight into Crisis, a conflict advisory group.


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