Relations between western countries and Saudi Arabia are now strained after the Washington Post newspaper columnist, who was critical of the Saudi leader and his current government, disappeared on October 2 after entering the diplomatic mission.
In a statement issued overnight on Friday, a Saudi Arabian state prosecutor claimed Khashoggi died in a fist fight within the consulate but offered scant further details.
Earlier, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt warned there would be “consequences” for British and Saudi relations if it emerged Khashoggi had been murdered.
“Let’s be absolutely clear, if the stories that we read about are true, and if you are asking me whether that will have consequences for the relationship with Saudi Arabia, then, yes, of course it will because what is alleged to have happened is totally inconsistent with our values,” he told the BBC’s Today Programme.
“Not just the brutality of it, if it happened, but also the fact that he was a journalist.”
Turkish officials have claimed that Khashoggi was killed and dismembered by Saudi agents, and say they have evidence – including an audio recording – of the murder.
″Part of our reaction will depend on the Saudi reaction, and whether we sense that they are taking it as seriously as we are taking it,” Hunt added. “But this is a very, very serious matter.”
The cabinet minister said the UK’s response would be “considered”, but “in the end, if these stories are true, we have to be absolutely clear, it would not be consistent with our values.”
Former MI6 chief Sir John Sawers told BBC Radio 4′s The World At One it appeared Khashoggi had been killed. He continued: “All the evidence points to it being ordered and carried out by people close to Mohammed bin Salman.
“I don’t think he would have done this if he hadn’t thought he had licence from the US administration to frankly behave as he wished to do so.
“I think President Trump and his ministerial team are waking up to just how dangerous it is to have people acting with a sense that they have impunity in their relationship with United States.”
Saudi Arabia has vehemently denied the allegations, though has offered no explanation as to what has become of the 59-year-old, who was visiting the mission to obtain a document required to marry his Turkish fiancée, as she waited outside for him. On Friday afternoon state media reported that Turkish prosecutors were questioning Saudi consulate employees over the matter.
Last week a Turkish newspaper published the names and photographs of what it called a “mysterious” 15-member “assassination squad” who allegedly arrived in Istanbul on two private jets the day he went missing and were involved in Khashoggi’s disappearance.
The Sabah newspaper, which is close to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, also published pictures of a black van later travelling from the Saudi consulate to the consul’s home.
News channel 24 aired a video, suggesting that Khashoggi was inside of the black Mercedes Vito, which resembled one parked outside of the consulate when the writer walked in on 2 October.
The channel said the van then drove some 1.2 miles to the consul’s home, where it parked inside a garage.
Shortly after he vanished, the Post published a column by Khashoggi’s fiancé, Hatice Cengiz, who explained he had sought to become a US citizen after living in self-imposed exile since last year, fearing repercussions for his criticism of the prince.
She acknowledged the writer first visited the consulate on 28 September “despite being somewhat concerned that he could be in danger”. Embassies and consulates under the Vienna Convention are technically foreign soil and must be protected by host nations.
He later returned on 2 October after being promised paperwork which was required in order for the couple to be married.
A surveillance video image showed Khashoggi walking into the consulate in Istanbul’s upscale 4th Levent area.
No evidence of him leaving the consulate has been made public, and Turkish officials has reportedly told US officials it has audio and video proof that Khashoggi was killed and dismembered in the building.
On Thursday Turkish police were searching a forest on the outskirts of Istanbul and a city near the Sea of Marmara for Khashoggi’s remains.
The Washington Post printed a blank column in its newspaper on 5 October with Khashoggi’s byline and the headline “A missing voice.”
The Post’s editorial board earlier called on the crown prince to ensure Khashoggi “is free and able to continue his work”.
“His criticism, voiced over the past year, most surely rankles Mohammed bin Salman, who was elevated to crown prince last year and has carried out a wide-ranging campaign to silence dissent while trying to modernise the kingdom,” the Post editorial read.
“Among those in his prisons for political speech are clerics, bloggers, journalists and activists. He imprisoned women who agitated for the right to drive, a right that was granted even as they were punished.”
On Thursday, senior government ministers from France, Britain and the Netherlands also withdrew from a significant conference in Riyadh, joining a list of international officials and business executives.
On Thursday, President Donald Trump has said he presumes Khashoggi is dead and that the US response to Saudi Arabia is likely to be “very severe.”
Trump, who has forged closer ties with Saudi Arabia and the 33-year-old crown prince, told reporters before boarding Air Force One: “It certainly looks that way to me. It’s very sad.” In an interview with the New York Times that day, Trump said he based his opinion that Khashoggi is dead on intelligence reports.
In that interview, Trump spoke of his confidence at the suggestion of a high-level Saudi role in the suspected killing of Khashoggi.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has held emergency talks in Saudi Arabia and Turkey this week and has told reporters that he advised Trump that Saudi Arabia should be given a few more days to complete its investigation into the disappearance of Khashoggi.
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.
The United States considers Riyadh a linchpin in efforts to contain Iran’s regional influence and a key global oil source, and 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, Pompeo said he told Trump 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.”
By casting doubt on whether the United States will respond at all, Pompeo reflected the internal struggle among Trump and his national security advisers on what to do should the Saudi leadership be blamed for what happened to Khashoggi.
“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,” Pompeo told reporters, also calling Saudi Arabia “an important counterterrorism partner.”
Billionaire businessman Sir Richard Branson has suspended his directorship of two tourism projects in Saudi Arabia while investigations take place into Khashoggi’s disappearance.
Meanwhile President Vladimir Putin has said Russia does not have enough information about the unexplained disappearance to justify spoiling ties with Riyadh.