FILE PHOTO: Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi speaks at an event hosted by Middle East Monitor in London, Britain, September 29, 2018. Middle East Monitor/Handout via REUTERS
Saudi Arabia's public prosecutor said on Thursday the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom's Istanbul consulate was premeditated, reversing previous official statements that the killing was unintended.
The death of Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and critic of de facto Saudi ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has sparked global outrage and mushroomed into a crisis for the world's top oil exporter and strategic ally of the West.
Saudi officials initially denied having anything to do with Khashoggi's disappearance after he entered the consulate on Oct. 2, before changing the official account to say an internal investigation suggested Khashoggi was accidentally killed in a botched operation to return him to the kingdom.
Turkey and Western allies of Riyadh have voiced deep scepticism about Saudi explanations of the killing, with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan dismissing Saudi efforts to blame rogue operatives and urging the kingdom to search "top to bottom" for those responsible.
On Thursday, Saudi state TV quoted the Saudi public prosecutor as saying the killing was premeditated, and that prosecutors were interrogating suspects on the basis of information provided by a joint Saudi-Turkish task force.
"Information from the Turkish side affirms that the suspects in Khashoggi's case premeditated their crime," said the statement carried by state TV.
The disclosure came a day after U.S. President Donald Trump, the kingdom's staunchest Western ally, was quoted by the Wall Street Journal as saying that Prince Mohammed, also known as MbS, bore ultimate responsibility for the operation that led to Khashoggi's death.
Two informed sources told Reuters on Thursday that CIA director Gina Haspel heard an audio recording of the killing during a fact-finding visit to Turkey this week, the first indication Ankara has shared its key investigative evidence.
A White House spokeswoman said Haspel would meet with Trump later on Thursday to brief him on the case. Representatives of the CIA declined to comment.
"We have shared with those who sought additional information some of the information and findings that the prosecutor has allowed us to share," Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters, without giving specific details.
Saudi Arabia has detained 18 people and dismissed five senior government officials as part of the investigation into Khashoggi's murder. Some were members of a 15-man hit team, many of them Saudi intelligence operatives, who flew into Istanbul hours before Khashoggi's death, Turkish security sources say.
Turkish police were investigating water samples from a well at the consulate on Thursday after initially being denied access, broadcaster CNN Turk said.
King Salman, who has delegated the day-to-day running of Saudi Arabia to his son MbS, on Saturday ordered a restructuring of the general intelligence agency.
Saudi state news agency SPA said on Thursday that MbS had presided over the first meeting of a committee to carry out that restructuring and that it had come up with recommendations to improve the agency's work.
How Western allies deal with Riyadh will hinge on the extent to which they believe responsibility for Khashoggi's death lies directly with MbS and the Saudi authorities.
MbS promised on Wednesday the killers would be brought to justice, his first public comments on the matter after speaking by phone with Erdogan.
Erdogan has called Khashoggi's murder a "savage killing" and demanded Riyadh punish those responsible, no matter how highly placed. Cavusoglu said Turkey had no intention of taking the Khashoggi case to an international court but would share information if an international inquiry were launched.
Saudi Arabia is the lynchpin of a U.S.-backed regional bloc against Iran but the crisis has strained Riyadh's relations with the West. Dozens of Western officials, world bankers and company executives shunned a major three-day investment conference in Riyadh this week.
But striking a defiant tone, MbS told international investors at the conference on Wednesday that the furor would not derail the kingdom's reform drive.
"We will prove to the world that the two governments (Saudi and Turkish) are cooperating to punish any criminal, any culprit and at the end justice will prevail," he said to applause.
Saudi Energy Minister Khalid Al-Falih conceded on Wednesday that the scandal had hurt the kingdom's image. But he said Saudi Arabia had signed $56 billion of deals at the conference despite the partial boycott and that it expected the United States to remain a key business partner.
"The interests that tie us are bigger than what is being weakened by the failed boycotting campaign of the conference," he told Saudi state TV.
Britain, like the United States a major weapons supplier to the kingdom, has described Riyadh's explanations for the killing as lacking credibility. France has said it will consider sanctions against Saudi Arabia if its intelligence services find Riyadh was behind Khashoggi's death.
For their part, the Trump administration and the U.S. defense industry are scrambling to save the few actual deals in a much-touted $110 billion arms package for Saudi Arabia.
(Reporting by Asma Alsharif and Tuqa Khalid in Dubai; Ali Kucukgocmen and Tulay Karadeniz in Ankara; Susan Heavey in Washington; Writing by Mark Heinrich; Editing by Nick Tattersall)