Flag comes down on U.S. Palestinian mission in Jerusalem

An American flag flutters at the premises of the former United States Consulate General in Jerusalem March 4, 2019. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The United States lowered the flag on Monday at the Jerusalem consulate that had served as its diplomatic channel to the Palestinians, merging the mission with the new U.S Embassy to Israel in the contested city.

The Palestinians, who have boycotted the Trump administration since it shifted long-standing U.S. policy in December 2017 by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, voiced anger at what they see as Washington’s latest move against them.

Whereas previously the consulate reported on Palestinian matters directly to Washington, its staff have now been repurposed in the embassy as a “Palestinian Affairs Unit” under the U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman.

“This is the last nail in the coffin” of peacemaking, veteran Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said on Twitter.

Israeli-Palestinian talks collapsed in 2014 and the White House says it intends to present a new peace plan after a national election in Israel in April.

Israel deems all of Jerusalem, including the eastern sector it captured in the 1967 Middle East War and annexed in a move not recognized internationally, as its undivided capital.

Washington has avoided such language, however, signaling that the final status of the city should be negotiated by the sides.

Palestinians want to make East Jerusalem the capital of a state they seek in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

The European Union’s latest report on Israeli settlements in the West Bank, released last month, said continued expansion had made the chances of a two-state solution with Jerusalam as the capital of both “increasingly unattainable”.

Building of new houses had continued at an unprecedented rate in the second half of 2018, opening the way for more Israelis to move in, the report said.

LOW KEY

At the ornate consulate on Agron Street in downtown Jerusalem, the flag ceremony was kept low key under gray winter skies. Friedman, who helped spearhead May’s relocation of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to a different converted consular building in south Jerusalem, was not present.

U.S. officials said the Stars and Stripes banner was taken down and presented to departing consul Karen Sasahara as a farewell gift, in keeping with foreign service custom, after which another U.S. flag was run up.

The U.S. State Department said the merger was driven by operational efficiency and did not signal any change in policy.

“Our work and our team will continue to work on reaching peace in this land,” Sasahara said on YouTube.

U.S. officials told Reuters last month that the Agron street building, immediately upon consulate operations ending, would serve as the ambassador’s official residence.

But that plan appeared to have slowed. On Monday, the consulate plaque had been removed from the building facade, leaving a blank space.

The U.S. consulate in Jerusalem had dated back 175 years, to when the city – holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims – was under Ottoman rule.

(Additional reporting by Rami Ayyub; Writing by Dan Williams, Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Angus MacSwan)

U.S. demands immediate return of ex-Marine detained in Russia on spy charges

Paul Whelan, a U.S. citizen detained in Russia for suspected spying, appears in a photo provided by the Whelan family on January 1, 2019. Courtesy Whelan Family/Handout via REUTERS

By Mary Milliken and Gabrielle Teacutetrault-Farber

BRASILIA/MOSCOW (Reuters) – The United States is demanding the immediate return of a retired U.S. Marine detained by Russia on spying charges, and wants an explanation of why he was arrested, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Wednesday.

Pompeo, in Brasilia for the inauguration of Brazil’s new president, said the U.S. government hoped to gain consular access to Paul Whelan within hours.

“We’ve made clear to the Russians our expectation that we will learn more about the charges, come to understand what it is he’s been accused of and if the detention is not appropriate, we will demand his immediate return,” Pompeo said.

In Moscow, RIA news agency cited a foreign ministry spokesman as saying Russia has allowed consular access to Whelan. Russia’s FSB state security service detained Whelan on Friday and opened a criminal case against him.

The State Department did not immediately confirm that Moscow had provided consular access.

Whelan was visiting Moscow for the wedding of a former fellow Marine and is innocent of the espionage charges against him, his family said on Tuesday.

He had been staying with the wedding party at Moscow’s Metropol hotel when he went missing, his brother, David, said.

“His innocence is undoubted and we trust that his rights will be respected,” Whelan’s family said in a statement released on Twitter on Tuesday.

Russia’s FSB state security service said Whelan had been detained on Friday, but it gave no details of his alleged espionage activities. Under Russian law, espionage can carry a prison sentence of between 10 and 20 years.

David Whelan told CNN that his brother, who had served in Iraq, has been to Russia many times in the past for both work and personal trips, and had been serving as a tour guide for some of the wedding guests. His friends filed a missing person report in Moscow after his disappearance, his brother said.

He declined to comment on his brother’s work status at the time of his arrest and whether his brother lived in Novi, Michigan, as address records indicate.

BorgWarner, a Michigan-based automotive parts supplier, said Whelan is the company’s director, global security. He is responsible for overseeing security at our facilities in Auburn Hills, Michigan, and at other company locations around the world.”

BUTINA CASE

Daniel Hoffman, a former CIA Moscow station chief, said it was “possible, even likely” that Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered Whelan’s arrest to set up an exchange for Maria Butina, a Russian citizen who pleaded guilty on Dec. 13 to acting as an agent tasked with influencing U.S. conservative groups.

Russia says Butina was forced to make a false confession about being a Russian agent.

Putin told U.S. President Donald Trump in a letter on Sunday that Moscow was ready for dialogue on a “wide-ranging agenda,” the Kremlin said following a series of failed attempts to hold a new summit.

At the end of November, Trump canceled a planned meeting with Putin on the sidelines of a G20 summit in Argentina, citing tensions about Russian forces opening fire on Ukrainian navy boats and then seizing them.

Trump’s relations with Putin have been under a microscope as a result of U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign.

Moscow has denied intervening in the election. Trump has said there was no collusion and characterized Mueller’s probe as a witch hunt.

Russia’s relations with the United States plummeted when Moscow annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014. Washington and Western allies have imposed a broad range of sanctions on Russian officials, companies and banks.

(Additional reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin in Moscow and Barbara Goldberg in New York; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Loved ones mourn Khashoggi after Riyadh seeks to execute five suspects

People attend a symbolic funeral prayer for Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the courtyard of Fatih mosque in Istanbul, Turkey November 16, 2018. REUTERS/Huseyin Aldemir

By Stephen Kalin and Sarah Dadouch

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia/ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Family and friends of Jamal Khashoggi said funeral prayers in Saudi Arabia and Turkey on Friday for the Saudi journalist killed by agents of his own government, in a case that has sparked a global outcry and mired the kingdom in crisis.

The Saudi public prosecutor said on Thursday it would seek the death penalty for five suspects in the murder inside the country’s Istanbul consulate on Oct. 2. They did not provide names but at least two are senior officials closely associated with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

People holding pictures of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi attend a symbolic funeral prayer for Khashoggi at the courtyard of Fatih mosque in Istanbul, Turkey November 16, 2018. REUTERS/Huseyin Aldemir

People holding pictures of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi attend a symbolic funeral prayer for Khashoggi at the courtyard of Fatih mosque in Istanbul, Turkey November 16, 2018. REUTERS/Huseyin Aldemir

In an unusual measure against an important security and economic partner, the U.S. Treasury imposed economic sanctions on 17 Saudis, including Saud al-Qahtani, the crown prince’s former top adviser.

Riyadh maintains that Prince Mohammed had nothing to do with the murder, even as Turkey and some Western allies, including U.S. President Donald Trump, have said ultimate responsibility lies with him as the country’s de facto ruler. Changing Saudi accounts of the murder, including initial denials, have been met with skepticism abroad.

Tens of thousands of worshippers at Mecca’s Grand Mosque and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, Khashoggi’s hometown, joined in prayers for the deceased, though the imams did not name him.

In Istanbul, mourners raised their hands in prayer outside Fatih Mosque. An imam recited Koranic verses under a tent set up to protect against the rain, and Khashoggi’s friends eulogized him.

“What we heard yesterday from the Saudi public prosecutor is not the justice we were expecting or waiting for, but represents injustice itself,” said Ayman Nour, a liberal Egyptian politician.

An adviser to Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan called for Prince Mohammed to distance himself from the legal proceedings.

“There is no chance to have a court proceeding that is independent from the crown prince in Saudi Arabia,” said Yasin Aktay.

For weeks, Khashoggi’s family has urged Saudi and Turkish authorities to find his remains and hand them over for burial, but the Saudi prosecutor said their whereabouts are unknown.

Islamic tradition places immense importance on the proper handling of the dead, mandating quick burial. The revelation that the body was dismembered has thus been particularly disturbing.

The decision to hold prayer services in the absence of a body suggests the family does not expect it to be recovered.

Khashoggi’s son, Salah, met the king and crown prince in Riyadh last month to receive condolences along with other relatives. He then departed for Washington after a travel ban was lifted and told CNN on Nov. 5 that he wanted to bury his father in Medina with the rest of the family.

“We just need to make sure that he rests in peace,” Salah said. “Until now, I still can’t believe that he’s dead. It’s not sinking in with me emotionally.”

NEW LIFE

Khashoggi’s fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, a Turkish researcher who had waited outside the Istanbul consulate for hours on the day he was killed and alerted the authorities and the media when he never left the building, called last week for Muslims around the world to perform the funeral prayer for him.

On Thursday, she tweeted a selfie of Khashoggi outside the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina mosque, writing: “Dear Jamal.. rest in peace. We will meet in heaven inshallah (God willing)..!”

Cengiz and Khashoggi met at a conference in Istanbul in May and soon decided to wed. He had entered the consulate that day to obtain documents proving an earlier marriage had ended.

The pair purchased an apartment in Istanbul and Khashoggi was planning to live between there and Washington, where he moved 18 months earlier fearing reprisals for his views. He obtained U.S. residency and wrote for the Washington Post, becoming familiar to many American policymakers.

“I have left my home, my family and my job, and I am raising my voice. To do otherwise would betray those who languish in prison,” he wrote in Sept. 2017, referring to intellectuals, activists and clerics arrested under Prince Mohammed.

His murder has provoked the biggest political crisis in a generation for Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter and a supporter of Washington’s plans to contain Iranian influence across the Middle East.

It has also tarnished the image of Prince Mohammed, who has pushed social and economic reforms while cracking down on dissent, upending the delicate balance inside the ruling family, and leading the country into messy conflicts in Yemen and Qatar.

(Additional Reporting by Ezgi Erkoyun, writing by Stephen Kalin, Editing by William Maclean)

Turkey searches Saudi consulate again, European ministers cancel Riyadh trip

A Turkish police with a sniffer dog examines the backyard of Saudi Arabia's Consul General Mohammad al-Otaibi's residence in Istanbul, Turkey October 18, 2018. REUTERS/Kemal Aslan

By Bulent Usta

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkish investigators searched Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul for a second time overnight looking for clues into the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and senior European ministers pulled out of an investment summit in Riyadh amid global concern over the incident.

The team left the consulate early on Thursday after searching the building and consular vehicles, a Reuters witness said. They used bright lights to illuminate the garden.

Earlier, they spent nearly nine hours in the Saudi consul’s residence along with Saudi investigators. The Turkish search, which used a drone, included the roof and garage.

Turkish officials say they believe Khashoggi – a U.S. resident and Washington Post columnist who was a strong critic of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – was murdered at the consulate on Oct. 2 and his body chopped up and removed.

He had gone to the consulate seeking documents for an upcoming marriage and has not been seen since. Saudi Arabia has denied involvement in the disappearance.

The incident has caused a global outcry but also poses a dilemma for the United States and other Western nations, which have lucrative business dealings with the authoritarian kingdom and count on it as a leading Middle East ally and opponent of their common enemy Iran.

It also wields huge influence as the world’s top oil exporter.

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

On Wednesday, U.S. President Donald Trump said he did not want to abandon Saudi Arabia and needed to see evidence of any role by Riyadh. He was waiting to hear back from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who met Saudi and Turkish leaders on a mission to the region this week.

Trump, who has forged closer ties with Saudi Arabia and the 33-year-old prince in an effort to counter Iranian influence in the Middle East, has speculated without providing evidence that “rogue killers” could be responsible.

DESERT STORM

European governments have expressed concern about Khashoggi’s disappearance but face a similarly delicate situation.

However, three senior ministers said they were pulling out of a high-profile investment conference in Riyadh later this month, joining a list of international officials and business executives to boycott the event.

French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire cited concerns about Khashoggi. British trade minister Liam Fox followed suit, with his spokesman saying: “Those bearing responsibility for his disappearance must be held to account.”

Dutch Finance Minister Wopka Hoekstra also scrapped plans to attend while the Dutch government cancelled a trade mission to Saudi Arabia next month.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said his plans to attend would be revisited on Thursday after U.S. officials consult Pompeo.

Russian President Vladimir Putin meanwhile said Moscow did not have enough information about Khashoggi’s disappearance to justify harming ties with Riyadh. His government would wait for details, he told a forum in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

The New York Times reported on Wednesday that U.S. intelligence officials are increasingly convinced of Prince Mohammed’s culpability in Khashoggi’s killing but have not yet been able to collect direct evidence. Saudi authorities did not immediately comment on the report.

Turkish sources have said the authorities have an audio recording indicating Khashoggi was killed inside the consulate.

The pro-government Yeni Safak newspaper published on Wednesday what it said were details from audio recordings that purported to document Khashoggi’s torture and interrogation.

Khashoggi’s torturers severed his fingers during the interrogation and later beheaded and dismembered him, it said.

Reuters has been unable to confirm the report with Turkish officials.

Turkey has not shared with the U.S. government or European allies audio or video evidence, seven U.S. and European security officials have told Reuters.

The United States and its allies have collected some intelligence through their own sources and methods, which partly confirms news reports based on leaks of audio recordings, four of the sources said.

FREE REIN

Turkish pro-government newspaper Sabah reported last week that investigators had identified a 15-member Saudi intelligence team that arrived in Istanbul on diplomatic passports hours before Khashoggi disappeared.

Prince Mohammed has painted himself as the face of a new, vibrant Saudi Arabia, diversifying its economy away from reliance on oil and making some social changes.

But he has faced criticism including over the arrest of women activists, a diplomatic row with Canada and Riyadh’s involvement in the Yemen war during which air strikes by the coalition Saudi Arabia leads have killed thousands of civilians.

Khashoggi, a royal insider who once advised former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal, has never shied away from criticising Saudi policies.

The Washington Post published a column it received from his assistant after he went missing in which Khashoggi condemns the crackdown on journalists by Arab governments and the failure of the international community to respond.

“As a result, Arab governments have been given free rein to continue silencing the media at an increasing rate,” he wrote.

(Additional reporting by Umit Ozdal, Yesim Dikmen and Tuvan Gumrukcu in Istanbul, John Irish and Sudip Kar-Gupta in Paris, Bart Meijer in Amsterdam, Alistair Smout and Kylie MacLellan in London; Writing by Daren Butler and Stephen Kalin; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Saudi prince agrees to Khashoggi case investigation as Turks search consulate

By Leah Millis and Bulent Usta

RIYADH/ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia’s crown prince agreed on Tuesday there must be a thorough investigation into the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the United States said, after media reports that Riyadh will acknowledge he was killed in a botched interrogation.

Khashoggi, a U.S. resident and leading critic of the crown prince, vanished after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2. Turkish officials say they believe he was murdered there and his body removed, which the Saudis strongly deny.

Overnight, Turkish crime scene investigators entered the consulate for the first time since Khashoggi’s disappearance and searched the premises for over nine hours.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who dispatched Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Riyadh amid strained ties with its close ally, speculated that “rogue killers” may be responsible.

Pompeo met King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to discuss the incident, which has sparked international outrage and brought renewed attention on the authoritarian kingdom’s human rights record.

He and Prince Mohammed “agreed on the importance of a thorough, transparent, and timely investigation”, a U.S. State Department spokeswoman said in Washington.

A Trump administration official said although Washington had a significant relationship with Riyadh “that doesn’t mean we’re in any way ignoring or downplaying this episode”. Those responsible must be held accountable, he said.

Pompeo is expected to go on to Turkey after dinner with the crown prince.

PAINTING OVER

In Istanbul, Turkish investigators were expanding their search to include the Saudi consul’s residence and consulate vehicles, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan raised the possibility that parts of the consulate had been repainted since Khashoggi disappeared.

“The investigation is looking into many things such as toxic materials and those materials being removed by painting them over,” he told reporters.

A Turkish security source said the overnight search of the consulate had provided “strong evidence” but no conclusive proof that Khashoggi was killed in the consulate.

“However, there are some findings and they are being worked on,” he said.

Despite the outcry, the case poses a dilemma for the United States, Britain, and other Western nations. Saudi Arabia is the world’s top oil exporter and spends lavishly on Western arms. It is also a military ally and an opponent of Iran.

Riyadh has also faced criticism from some Western politicians and human right groups over the civilian casualties its warplanes have caused in the war in Yemen, in which it intervened three years ago.

Trump has threatened “severe punishment” if it turns out Khashoggi was killed in the consulate but ruled out canceling arms deals worth tens of billions of dollars.

Indicating unease over the Khashoggi case, international media and business executives are pulling out of an investment conference next week.

London Stock Exchange chief executive David Schwimmer joined the list on Tuesday, as did the CEOs of HSBC, Standard Chartered, Credit Suisse, and BNP Paribas, and David Bonderman, the billionaire chairman and founding partner of private equity firm TPG.

The City of London Corporation, which governs the capital’s financial district, said its Policy and Resources Chairman Catherine McGuinness would no longer attend, and Dutch Finance Minister Wopke Hoekstra said he most likely would not either.

Saudi Arabia has said it would retaliate against any pressure or economic sanctions.

COLLECTING EVIDENCE

CNN said on Monday that after denying for two weeks any role in his disappearance, Saudi Arabia was preparing to say he died in a botched interrogation.

The New York Times said Prince Mohammed had approved an interrogation or abduction of Khashoggi and the government would shield him by blaming an intelligence official. Saudi authorities could not be reached for comment.

Turkish authorities have an audio recording indicating that Khashoggi was killed in the consulate, Turkish sources have told Reuters.

The Turkish team that searched the consulate took away soil samples and a metal door from the garden, a Reuters witness said, but a senior official acknowledged the difficulty of collecting evidence 13 days after the incident.

The Turkish security source confirmed that Saudi Consul General Mohammad al-Otaibi left Istanbul on Tuesday, returning to Riyadh, hours before his residence was set to be searched.

He said Turkish authorities had not asked him to go, adding: “He wanted to leave”.

“WRECKING BALL”

Khashoggi moved to Washington last year fearing retribution for his criticism of Prince Mohammed, who has cracked down on dissent with arrests.

Many members of the U.S. Congress have strongly criticized the kingdom.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, describing himself as a long-time supporter of Riyadh, called Prince Mohammed “a wrecking ball” and accused him of Khashoggi’s killing.

“This guy’s gotta go,” he said on Fox News.

Graham told Fox News Radio separately he was worried about one of Khashoggi’s children still living in Saudi Arabia and had offered to help his “three American citizen children”.

Khashoggi moved to Washington last year fearing retribution for his criticism of Prince Mohammed, who has cracked down on dissent with arrests.

The Saudi riyal rebounded early after falling to its lowest in two years over fears that foreign investment could shrink. Saudi stock index initially dropped 3 percent but ended up after state-linked funds came in to buy toward the close.

(Additional reporting by Yesim Dikmen and Sarah Dadouch in Istanbul, Orhan Coskun, Gulsen Solaker, Ece Toksabay and Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara, John Revill in Basel, Oliver Hirt in Zurich, Lawrence White in London, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Ece Toksabay, Daren Butler and Stephen Kalin, editing by Angus MacSwan)

Saudi team arrives in Turkey for Khashoggi investigation: sources

Vehicles with diplomatic plates are seen in front of Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul, Turkey October 12, 2018. REUTERS/Murad Sezer

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – A delegation from Saudi Arabia has arrived in Turkey as part of a joint investigation into the disappearance of prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, three Turkish sources said on Friday.

A Saudi source also said a senior royal, Prince Khaled al-Faisal, visited Turkey on Thursday for talks. Later the same day Turkey said the two countries had agreed to form a joint working group – at Riyadh’s initiative – to investigate the case.

Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 to get documents for his forthcoming marriage. Saudi officials say he left shortly afterwards but Turkish officials and his fiancee, who was waiting outside, said he never came out.

Turkish sources have told Reuters the initial assessment of the police was that Khashoggi, an outspoken critic of the Saudi government, was deliberately killed inside the consulate. Riyadh has dismissed the allegations as baseless.

“A delegation has arrived in Turkey as part of efforts to form a joint working group with Saudi Arabia,” one of the three sources said.

The delegation, which came on Thursday, is meeting a Turkish prosecutor investigating the case as well as representatives from the Justice Ministry, Interior Ministry, police and the national intelligence agency, another source said.

There is no set date for how long the meetings will take, but “very quick results need to be seen”, the source said. The team is now in Istanbul and will continue to work over the weekend, the source added.

Prince Khaled, the governor of Mecca, made his brief visit in his capacity as special adviser to King Salman, a source with links to the prince’s family told Reuters, in a move that would suggest the monarch was treating the issue as a priority.

President Tayyip Erdogan has previously said that Turkey could not remain silent over Khashoggi’s disappearance and called on officials at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to prove he had left the building.

On Tuesday, the Turkish foreign ministry said the Saudi consulate in Istanbul would be searched as part of the investigation.

(Reporting by Orhan Coskun; Writing by Sarah Dadouch; Editing by David Stamp)

Apple Watch, hired jet, mystery vehicle figure in search for missing Saudi dissident

FILE PHOTO: Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi speaks at an event hosted by Middle East Monitor in London Britain, September 29, 2018. Picture taken September 29, 2018. Middle East Monitor/Handout via REUTERS

By Orhan Coskun, Sarah Dadouch and Stephen Kalin

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Jamal Khashoggi believed he was safe in Turkey.

Khashoggi, a veteran Saudi journalist and newspaper editor, had lived in exile in Washington for more than a year, writing a column for the Washington Post in which he regularly criticized his country’s crackdown on dissent, its war in Yemen and sanctions imposed on Qatar.

A still image taken from CCTV video and obtained by TRT World claims to show Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi as he arrives at Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul, Turkey Oct. 2, 2018. Reuters TV/via REUTERS

A still image taken from CCTV video and obtained by TRT World claims to show Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi as he arrives at Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul, Turkey Oct. 2, 2018. Reuters TV/via REUTERS

He said he could write freely in the United States in a way that was impossible at home, according to friends and colleagues, but he was increasingly worried that Riyadh could hurt him or his family.

In Turkey, though, Khashoggi had friends in high places, including some of President Tayyip Erdogan’s advisers. So when he walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul at 1 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 2, he hoped the appointment would be brief, a simple bureaucratic task that would allow him to marry his Turkish fiancee, whom he had met four months earlier.

“He said the safest country in the world for Saudi Arabians was Turkey,” said Yasin Aktay, an Erdogan aide and close friend of Khashoggi.

Friends and family have not seen him since.

Turkish officials have said they believe Khashoggi, 59, was killed inside the consulate.

Saudi Arabia has strongly rejected the accusation. The kingdom’s ambassador to the United States, Prince Khalid bin Salman, said reports suggesting Khashoggi went missing in the Istanbul consulate or that Saudi Arabia had killed him “are absolutely false and baseless” and a product of “malicious leaks and grim rumors.”

“Jamal is a Saudi citizen who went missing after leaving the Consulate,” the ambassador said in a statement. Saudi Arabia has sent a team of investigators to work with Turkish authorities and “chase every lead to uncover the truth behind his disappearance.”

In interviews, Turkish officials provided new details of their investigation into the missing journalist.

Two senior Turkish officials revealed the existence of an object that may provide important clues to Khashoggi’s fate: the black Apple watch he was wearing when he entered the consulate. The watch was connected to a mobile phone he left outside, they said.

An official walks to gate of Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, October 10, 2018. REUTERS/Osman Orsal

An official walks to gate of Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, October 10, 2018. REUTERS/Osman Orsal

Investigators are also focusing on 15 Saudi men who entered the consulate around the same time as Khashoggi and left a short time later. These men had arrived hours earlier from Riyadh, most of them by private plane, the officials said. By the end of the day, they were on their way back to the kingdom.

Turkish newspaper Sabah said on Wednesday it had identified the 15 as members of a Saudi intelligence team. They included a forensic expert. A Turkish official did not dispute the report.

And investigators are trying to trace a vehicle that left the Saudi consulate at the same time as two cars destined for the airport, one of the officials said. This vehicle didn’t turn toward the airport, but set off in the opposite direction.

This story is based on interviews with Turkish officials, Khashoggi’s fiancee and more than a dozen of his friends, who gave insight into the columnist’s state of mind in the days leading up to his disappearance, and explained why he went to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, not the embassy in his adopted home of Washington.

The case threatens to drive wedges between Saudi Arabia and Turkey and between Riyadh and its western allies. U.S. President Donald Trump said on Oct. 9 he plans to speak with Saudi Arabian officials about Khashoggi’s disappearance. The mystery also threatens to undermine Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s drive to attract foreign investors and new high-tech business to a country that is too dependent on oil revenues.

 

A NEW LIFE

Khashoggi met his Turkish fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, who is 23 years his junior, in May at a conference in Istanbul, according to Cengiz and a close friend of the Saudi journalist.

Their relationship quickly evolved, and Khashoggi spoke about wanting to start a new life with her. By August, the couple had decided to marry in Turkey, where Cengiz lived, and spend much of their time there.

“Jamal bought an apartment in Istanbul and we were furnishing our new home,” Cengiz told Reuters on Oct. 9. “We were planning to marry this week before Jamal flew back to Washington.”

The decision to marry in Istanbul, whose mosques reminded Khashoggi of his hometown Medina, set off a paper chase that ultimately ended in Khashoggi’s disappearance.

Turkish law required that Khashoggi, who was divorced, provide proof that he did not have a wife. He asked if he could get the document from the Saudi embassy in Washington, according to a friend in Europe, but was told the consulate in Turkey was better placed to help.

Cengiz said Khashoggi wouldn’t have applied for the document in Istanbul if he could have avoided it. Asked to comment, a Saudi official said it was “not accurate” that Khashoggi was told to go to Istanbul.

The friend recounted how he warned Khashoggi against getting the paper in Istanbul for fear the Saudis might arrest him if he set foot in the consulate. “He told me there is no solution except to arrange for this paper with the consulate in Turkey,” said the friend, who was in frequent contact with Khashoggi in the days before he disappeared. Khashoggi reassured him, he said, that his good connections in Turkey meant “no one can do anything to harm me in Istanbul.”

Khashoggi visited the consulate without an appointment on Friday, Sept 28. Cengiz waited outside. That first meeting went smoothly. Khashoggi told Cengiz and several friends that officials in the consulate had treated him politely. They explained the paperwork would take time to prepare.

Khashoggi exchanged phone numbers with a consulate official named Sultan so he could call and check on progress, according to three friends. Sultan said the document would be ready early the following week. Reuters has not been able to locate Sultan or confirm his role at the consulate. The consul declined to comment on who Khashoggi spoke to.

“He came out smiling. He told me ‘inshallah (God willing) I will receive this paper after I come back from London,'” Cengiz said.

Confident he would soon have the paperwork he needed, Khashoggi flew to London later the same day to attend a conference. He was asked there by colleagues about the threat he faced from the Saudi authorities for his work, according to some of those present.

“One of my colleagues at dinner asked if he saw a possibility that his citizenship would be withdrawn,” said Daud Abdullah, director of Middle East Monitor which organized the conference. “He discounted that – he didn’t think the authorities would go that far.”

An exiled Saudi dissident who spoke to Khashoggi in the days before his disappearance said his friend was worried that he might face interrogation by the Saudis, but nothing more.

Another friend, British-Palestinian activist Azzam Tamimi, who saw Khashoggi during that trip to London, said he “didn’t seem scared at all. The opposite. He was relaxed and calm.” Tamimi saw Khashoggi off at the airport in London.

MYSTERY MEN

Khashoggi flew back to Istanbul from London on Monday evening, Oct 1. The following morning, he spoke again with consul worker Sultan, who told him to collect the document at 1 p.m the same day.

Outside the consulate, a low rise building at the edge of one of Istanbul’s business districts, Khashoggi handed Cengiz his two mobile phones, the fiancee told Reuters. He left instructions that she should call Aktay, the Erdogan aide, if he didn’t reappear. Khashoggi was wearing his black Apple Watch, connected to one of the phones, when he entered the building.

A senior Turkish government official and a senior security official said the two inter-connected devices are at the heart of the investigation into Khashoggi’s disappearance.

“We have determined that it was on him when he walked into the consulate,” the security official said. Investigators are trying to determine what information the watch transmitted. “Intelligence services, the prosecutor’s office and a technology team are working on this. Turkey does not have the watch so we are trying to do it through connected devices,” he said.

Tech experts say an Apple Watch can provide data such as location and heart rate. But what investigators can find out depends on the model of watch, whether it was connected to the internet, and whether it is near enough an iPhone to synchronize.

When Khashoggi did not emerge quickly, Cengiz said she at first hoped he had got the document and was talking with consul staff. “But when time passed and employees started leaving the building and he still wasn’t out, I panicked,” she said.

She called Aktay, the Erdogan aide, around 4.30 p.m and told him her fiance was missing. As soon as he received the call, Aktay told Reuters, he contacted Turkish security forces and intelligence officials. “Of course I also called the office of the president, who was in a senior party committee meeting at that point,” Aktay said. “After about half an hour, everybody was informed and ready to take the measures needed in this case. And of course then, a long period of tension and expectation started.”

Local and international media reported Khashoggi’s disappearance the next day, Wednesday, Oct. 3. Turkish authorities said there was no evidence to suggest Khashoggi had left the building, and they believed he was still inside. Saudi authorities countered that their citizen had left the consulate and that they were investigating.

Two Turkish security sources told Reuters that security camera recordings showed Khashoggi had not left the consulate by either of its two exits.

They said that 15 Saudi men had entered the building at around the time Khashoggi went in, having flown into Istanbul earlier in the day, most of them on a private aircraft from Riyadh and some on commercial flights.

The men left after “some time” in two cars and returned to the airport, the sources said. They said a third vehicle left at the same time but turned in the opposite direction. Investigators are trying to trace its route by analyzing surveillance cameras. The Istanbul consulate referred questions about the 15 men and the vehicles to Saudi authorities, who did not respond to a request for comment.

“It is a very mysterious situation. Diplomats that came in private jets, stay in Turkey for a few hours, and leave. It is also very easy for them to pass through security due to their diplomatic immunity,” one of the security sources said.

According to Flight Tracker, an online flight tracking system, a private plane that brought nine of the men in the early hours of Oct. 2 was registered to a company called Sky Prime Aviation Services. A company official confirmed that Sky Prime Aviation owned the plane and that it was in use on Oct. 2, but gave no further details. He said the firm was owned by a private company registered in Saudi Arabia. Two industry sources said the firm belongs to the Saudi government. The Saudi government did not respond to a request for comment.

The other six men arrived on commercial flights, the security source said. The 15 men checked in, briefly, to two hotels, the Movenpick and Wyndham, which are close to the Saudi consulate. The hotels declined to comment.

As pressure built on Saudi Arabia to locate their missing citizen, Saudi officials in Istanbul showed a Reuters reporter around the consulate on Saturday, Oct. 6, opening cupboards and inviting him to inspect the ladies’ bathroom. A few hours later, Turkish authorities said they believed Khashoggi had been killed.

A Saudi source told Reuters that British intelligence believed there had been an attempt to drug Khashoggi inside the consulate that culminated in an overdose. He said the information came from a British intelligence source. Contacted by Reuters, British intelligence did not comment. Asked about this account, a Saudi official said: “This death is not true.”

REFORM NOT REVOLUTION

Khashoggi’s message in his columns for the Washington Post was one of reform, not revolution.

He often championed political change but did not question the Saudi monarchy as an institution. He criticized the royal family for misusing Saudi’s oil wealth and questioned specific policies, such as the war in Yemen and the arrests of Saudi intellectuals and activists.

His bumpy relations with the Saudi authorities and the clerical establishment predated the rise of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. In 2003 he was fired as editor-in-chief of reform newspaper Al Watan, less than two months into his tenure, after publishing columns critical of the growing influence of the religious establishment in Saudi Arabia.

In 2007, he was named editor-in-chief of Al Watan for a second time but was forced to resign three years later after publishing an article that challenged some elements of Salafism, a branch of Sunni Islam.

Khashoggi was also the consummate insider, as an adviser to former intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal and a confidant of billionaire investor Prince Alwaleed bin Talal.

Yet by early 2017, he was feeling the heat again. The authorities ordered him to stop writing and tweeting, then he watched as other writers, including several friends, were detained in a crackdown on dissent in September, 2017.     “He was outside (the country), so he didn’t return,” said his friend, Tamimi.

In the United States, he felt he could speak freely. Karen Attiah, his editor at the Washington Post, said it was as if he had rediscovered journalism. “When he was in the newsroom, when I brought him the first time, he became energized. He took a selfie and said, ‘I miss this. I miss being in a newsroom.’ We spoke about editing and what it was like to talk to writers. He just lit up,” she said.

An acquaintance said Khashoggi was considering launching new projects from Washington. One idea focused on bringing attention to political prisoners in Saudi Arabia and promoting democracy in the Arab world, said the acquaintance.

Attiah, the global opinions editor of the Washington Post, said Khashoggi rarely expressed fears for himself but he was “really torn up” about the pressures on his family. “I did worry about Jamal,” she said. “I just thought, ‘Who would be so brazen to go after him?'”

(Additional reporting by Yara Bayoumy and Jonathan Landay in Washington; Editing by Janet McBride and Nick Tattersall)

Trump expels 60 Russians, closes Seattle consulate after UK chemical attack: officials

FILE PHOTO: The Russian embassy on Wisconsin Avenue in Washington December 29, 2016. REUTERS/James Lawler Duggan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday ordered the expulsion of 60 Russians from the United States and closed the Russian consulate in Seattle over a nerve agent attack earlier this month in Britain, senior U.S. officials said.

The order includes 12 Russian intelligence officers from Russia’s mission to the United Nations headquarters in New York and reflects concerns that Russian intelligence activities have been increasingly aggressive, senior U.S. administration officials told reporters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

(Reporting by Roberta Rampton, Editing by Franklin Paul)

Russia pledges ‘harsh response’ to U.S. tit-for-tat measures

A sign outside the entrance to the building of the Consulate General of Russia is shown in San Francisco, California, U.S., August 31, 2017.

By Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia said on Friday it would respond harshly to any U.S. measures designed to hurt it, a day after the United States told Moscow to close its San Francisco consulate and buildings in Washington and New York.

The warning, from Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, came as Russia said it was weighing a response to the U.S. move that will force it to shutter two trade missions in the United States as well as the San Francisco consulate by Sept. 2.

“We’ll react as soon as we finish our analysis,” Lavrov told students in Moscow. “We will respond harshly to things that damage us.”

Separately, a top Kremlin aide complained the U.S. demarche pushed bilateral ties further into a blind alley and fuelled a spiral of tit-for-tat retaliatory measures.

U.S. President Donald Trump took office in January, saying he wanted to improve U.S.-Russia ties which were at a post-Cold War low. But since then, ties have frayed further after U.S. intelligence officials said Russia had meddled in the presidential election, something Moscow denies.

Trump, himself battling allegations his associates colluded with Russia, grudgingly signed new sanctions on Moscow into law this month which had been drawn up by Congress.

When it became clear those measures would become law, Moscow ordered the United States to cut its diplomatic and technical staff in Russia by more than half, to 455 people.

Lavrov hinted on Friday that Russia might look at ordering further reductions in U.S. embassy staff, suggesting Moscow had been generous last time by allowing Washington to keep “more than 150” extra people.

He said Russia had cut the U.S. numbers to tally with the number of Russian diplomats in the United States, but that Moscow had generously included more than 150 Russian staff who work at Russia’s representation office at the United Nations.

Lavrov said Moscow still hoped for better relations and blamed Trump’s political foes for the deteriorating situation.

“I want to say that this whole story with exchanging tit-for-tat sanctions was not started by us,” Lavrov said.

“It was started by the Obama administration to undermine U.S.-Russia relations and to not allow Trump to advance constructive ideas or fulfil his pre-election pledges.”

Barack Obama, then outgoing president, expelled 35 suspected Russian spies in December and seized two Russian diplomatic compounds. President Vladimir Putin paused before responding, saying he would wait to see how Trump handled Russia.

“We thought this administration could exercise common sense, but unfortunately the Russophobes in Congress are not allowing it to,” said Lavrov, who complained that the United States had only given Moscow 48 hours to comply with its latest demands.

 

(Additional reporting by Denis Pinchuk; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)