By Tulay Karadeniz and Roberta Rampton
ANKARA/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Monday “rogue killers” may have been behind the disappearance of prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman ordered an internal investigation into the case.
Trump said he had spoken with King Salman about Khashoggi, a critic of Saudi policies, and that he was sending Secretary of State Mike Pompeo immediately to meet the king and travel to other places as needed.
Khashoggi, a U.S. resident and Washington Post columnist, vanished after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul two weeks ago to get marriage documents. Turkish officials have said authorities believe he was murdered there and his body removed.
Saudi Arabia has strongly denied killing Khashoggi and denounced such assertions as “lies”, saying he left the building shortly after entering.
“The king firmly denied any knowledge of it,” Trump told reporters. “He didn’t really know, maybe – I don’t want to get into his mind but it sounded to me – maybe these could have been rogue killers. Who knows?”
A Turkish official and a security source told Reuters on Monday that the authorities have an audio recording indicating that Khashoggi was killed in the consulate, without providing further details. [L8N1WV4NO]
The official said evidence was being shared with countries including Saudi Arabia and the United States.
The case has provoked an international outcry, with Trump threatening “severe punishment” if it turns out Khashoggi was killed in the consulate and European allies urging “a credible investigation” and accountability for those responsible.
A joint Turkish-Saudi team was set to search the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, where Khashoggi was last seen on Oct. 2.
A Turkish diplomatic source said investigators would inspect the consulate on Monday afternoon, after delays last week when Turkey accepted a Saudi proposal to work together to find out what happened to Khashoggi.
“It has been 13 days since the event, so surely proving some of the evidence might be difficult, but we believe we will obtain evidence,” the Turkish official said.
A Saudi official, not authorized to speak publicly, told Reuters that the king had ordered an internal investigation based on information from the joint team in Istanbul.
Asked when the public prosecutor could make an announcement, the official said: “He was instructed to work quickly.”
Britain expects Riyadh to provide “a complete and detailed response” to questions over Khashoggi’s disappearance, Prime Minister Theresa May’s spokesman said on Monday.
Saudi Arabia has responded to Western statements by saying it would retaliate against any pressure or economic sanctions “with greater action”, and Arab allies rallied to support it, setting up a potential showdown between the world’s top oil exporter and its main Western allies.
King Salman and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan spoke by telephone on Sunday evening and stressed the importance of the two countries creating a joint group as part of the probe.
Broadcaster CNN Turk reported on Monday that the Saudi team had arrived at Istanbul police headquarters.
The Saudi riyal fell to its lowest in two years and its international bond prices slipped over fears that foreign investment inflows could shrink amid international pressure.
The Saudi stock market had tumbled 7.2 percent over the previous two trading days but rebounded 2 percent on Monday.
Foreign capital is key to Saudi plans for economic diversification and job creation.
But concern over the disappearance has seen media organizations and a growing number of attendees pull out of a “Davos in the Desert” investment conference set for Oct. 23-25, which has become the biggest show for investors to promote Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reform vision.
On Monday, a source familiar with the matter said Blackstone CEO Stephen Schwarzman and BlackRock Chief Executive Larry Fink were pulling out of the summit. Both companies declined comment. CNBC reported that Mastercard CEO Ajay Banga would not attend either.
Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), which hosts the conference, has tentatively committed $20 billion to an infrastructure investment planned with Blackstone Group. Prince Mohammed told Reuters last year that Blackstone and BlackRock Inc were planning to open offices in the kingdom.
Bahrain called for a boycott of Uber, in which PIF has invested $3.5 billion, after its chief executive officer said he would not attend the conference.
Similar campaigns trended on social media in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. UAE businessman Khalaf Ahmad Al-Habtoor urged a boycott of Virgin, which has suspended discussions with PIF over a planned $1 billion investment.
Khashoggi, a familiar face on Arab talk shows, moved to the United States last year fearing retribution for his criticism of Prince Mohammed, who has cracked down on dissent with arrests.
The former newspaper editor once interviewed Osama bin Laden and later became a consummate insider, advising former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal when he served as ambassador in London and Washington.
A pro-government Turkish daily published preliminary evidence last week from investigators it said identified a 15-member Saudi intelligence team which arrived in Istanbul on diplomatic passports hours before Khashoggi disappeared.
The Saudi consulate referred Reuters to authorities in Riyadh who did not respond to questions about the 15 Saudis.
Asked if he had reviewed the purported recording of Khashoggi’s killing, Trump told reporters on Saturday: “I have not… We’ve all heard a lot about the audio. Nobody’s seen it yet, so we do want to see it… we’re going to be seeing it very soon.”
(Additional reporting by Yara Bayoumy, Trevor Hunnicutt, Lesley Wroughton, Doina Chiacu in Washington, Rob Cox of Breakingviews, William James in London, Dominic Evans in Istanbul; Writing by Stephen Kalin; Editing by David Dolan, William Maclean)