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Confusion surrounding location of dissident Saudi reporter

AFP PHOTO/STR | Saudi commentator Jamal Khashoggi was last seen entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey on Oct. 2, 2018.

Saudi Arabian journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, who has written columns for the Washington Post critical of the kingdom's crown prince has gone missing after visiting the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, his supporters said Wednesday.

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Khashoggi's personal website bore a banner saying "Jamal has been arrested at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul!" without elaborating.

A statement from Saudi Arabia later issued a denial, stating that Khashoggi left immediately after visiting the consulate. An official told Reuters that Khashoggi visited the consulate "to request paperwork related to his marital status and exited shortly thereafter".

>> Watch: 'Saudi Arabia is becoming one-man rule', exiled journalist says

However, his fiancée has reported that she waited for hours for him outside the mission on Tuesday before calling for help. He gave her his mobile phones for safekeeping, something common as embassies throughout the Middle East routinely require phones to be left outside as a security precaution.

A vigil began after the alarm was raised and continued into Wednesday, as his supporters linked his disappearance to the arrest of other businessmen, politicians and activists since 33-year-old Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's rise to power.

"He went in, and as far as I know, he didn't come out. And if he did exit, we have no news of him. His phones are with me. I have the keys to his house here," his fiancée told The Associated Press. "Something has happened to him and we don't know what and how it has happened."

Saudi dissident's disappearance is 'shocking, but not surprising'

Turkish and Saudi officials diverge

Turkish and Saudi officials gave conflicting accounts of the matter.

Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said Khashoggi was still in the consulate and the government was monitoring the situation.

"Our relevant authorities are in contact and engaged in negotiations with their (Saudi) counterparts. I hope this issue will be resolved with ease," he told reporters.

But a Saudi official denied that Khashoggi was in the consulate.

"Mr. Khashoggi visited the consulate to request paperwork related to his marital status and exited shortly thereafter," the official said. "He is not in the consulate nor in Saudi custody."

Saudi journalist critical of Riyadh 'missing' in Istanbul

Self-imposed exile

Khashoggi, 59, is a longtime journalist, foreign correspondent, editor and columnist whose work has been controversial in the past in the ultra-conservative Sunni kingdom. He went into a self-imposed exile in the United States following the ascension of Prince Mohammed, now next in line to the throne to his father, the 82-year-old King Salman.

“It has become one-man rule,” Khashoggi told FRANCE 24 in an interview last year. “[MBS] has control of everything. He is creating an environment of intimidation and fear. Saudis are being silenced. That is not a recipe for reform in Saudi Arabia – and he needs to do something about that.”

As a contributor to the Post, Khashoggi has written extensively about Saudi Arabia, including criticising its war in Yemen, its recent diplomatic spat with Canada and its arrest of women's rights activists after the lifting of a ban on women driving.

"The arrests illuminate the predicament confronting all Saudis. We are being asked to abandon any hope of political freedom, and to keep quiet about arrests and travel bans that impact not only the critics but also their families," Khashoggi wrote in a May 21 column for the Washington Post. "We are expected to vigorously applaud social reforms and heap praise on the crown prince while avoiding any reference to the pioneering Saudis who dared to address these issues decades ago."

"I don't know what has happened to him. I can't even guess how such a thing can happen to him," his fiancée said. "There is no law or lawsuit against him. He is not a suspect, he has not been convicted. There is nothing against him. He is just a man whose country doesn't like his writings or his opinions."

Washington Post ‘very concerned’

The Post said it remained "very concerned" about Khashoggi.

"It would be unfair and outrageous if he has been detained for his work as a journalist and commentator," the Post's international opinions editor, Eli Lopez, said in a statement. "We hope that he is safe and that we can hear from him soon."

The US State Department said it was aware of Khashoggi's disappearance and said it was "seeking more information at this time."

Turkish police later came to the consulate and reviewed footage from two surveillance cameras outside. That footage showed Khashoggi entered the building, but never left, said a friend of the writer, who spoke on condition of anonymity as his job barred him from speaking to journalists.

A Turkish security official said Wednesday that authorities were in discussions with Saudi consular officials about Khashoggi's situation.

"Our efforts are continuing," the official said, without elaborating. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations that bar officials from speaking to journalists without prior authorisation.

‘Stop unnecessary arrests’

Khashoggi was famous for his interviews and travels with Osama bin Laden between 1987 and 1995, including in Afghanistan, where he wrote about the battle against the Soviet occupation. In the early 1990s, he tried to persuade bin Laden to reconcile with the Saudi royal family and return home from his base in Sudan, but the al-Qaeda leader refused.

Khashoggi maintained ties with Saudi elite and launched a satellite news channel, Al-Arab, from Bahrain in 2015 with the backing of Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal. The channel stayed on the air for less than 11 hours before being shut down. Its billionaire backer was detained in the Ritz Carlton roundup overseen by Prince Mohammed in 2017.

"Presently, Saudi citizens no longer understand the rationale behind the relentless wave of arrests," Khashoggi wrote in an August 7 column. "These arbitrary arrests are forcing many into silence, and a few others have even quietly left the country."

He offered this advice to the kingdom: "There is a better way for the kingdom to avoid Western criticism: Simply free human rights activists, and stop the unnecessary arrests that have diminished the Saudi image."

(FRANCE 24 with AP and REUTERS)

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