Trump, aides pressure Saudi prince over missing journalist

Washington (AFP) –


US President Donald Trump demanded answers Wednesday over the disappearance of respected Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi as his top lieutenants pressured Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over the fate of the Washington Post writer.

Trump said Wednesday he talked to Saudi authorities "at the highest level" about Khashoggi, whom Turkish officials say may have been killed in a visit to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last week.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said National Security Advisor John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Trump's aide and son-in-law Jared Kushner had all spoken to Prince Mohammed over the past two days over the case.

"We're demanding everything," Trump told reporters. "We cannot let this happen, to reporters, to anybody."

"We are very disappointed to see what's going on. We don't like it and we're going to get to the bottom," he added.

US officials have not confirmed Turkish claims that Khashoggi, a US resident and one of the more outspoken critics of the regime of King Salman and his son Prince Mohammed, had been lured to the consulate and murdered by a team of 15 government operatives sent by Riyadh to Istanbul.

Sanders said the administration is pushing for more information on the case, which has sparked outrage from human rights and journalist groups and which threatens to harm Saudi relations with Western allies.

In the calls by Bolton, Kushner and Pompeo, she said, "they asked for more details and for the Saudi government to be transparent in the investigation process. We will continue to monitor this situation and provide updates as available."

- 'Where is Jamal?' -

The US peace group Code Pink mounted a protest in front of the Saudi Embassy in Washington Wednesday, brandishing signs saying "Where is Jamal Khashoggi?" and "Khashoggi: Another Victim of Saudi Violence."

"We are very very disturbed" by Khashoggi's disappearance," said Code Pink founder Meda Benjamin.

"We think that there is very little hope that Jamal is still alive."

The Washington Post, where Khashoggi had been a regular contributor over the past year, also demanded answers.

"Reports about Jamal's fate have suggested he was a victim of state-sponsored, cold-blooded murder," said Post publisher and chief executive Fred Ryan.

"Silence, denials and delays are not acceptable. We demand to know the truth," he added.

Khashoggi, 59, is a longtime leading Saudi journalist and former government advisor who went into exile last year after 33-year-old Prince Mohammed rose to power underneath his father the king.

He has been critical the monarchy's continued arrest of critics on both the left and right, despite its professed reforms.

He has also repeatedly assailed Riyadh's role leading the war against Yemen's rebel Houthis, a campaign closely identified with Prince Mohammed that has resulted in thousands of civilian deaths and generated a major humanitarian disaster.

Khashoggi vanished on October 2 after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to obtain papers for his pending marriage to his Turkish fiance Hatice Cengiz.

In his last interview three days before his disappearance, he said he did not think he would return to Saudi Arabia.

"When I hear of the arrest of a friend who did nothing that (deserved being) arrested, it makes me feel I shouldn't go," he told the BBC.

- 'Plan to capture him' -

Turkish investigators say CCTV footage shows the moment he entered the consulate, and that he never exited.

Riyadh insisted the Khashoggi left the building and called the murder claims "baseless".

A source told the Washington Post that US intelligence "intercepted communications of Saudi officials discussing a plan to capture him."

The Saudis hoped to "lure" Khashoggi to Saudi Arabia "and lay hands on him there", the source told the Post.

But State Department deputy spokesman Robert Palladino told reporters they had no such tip.

"The US had no advance knowledge of Jamal Khashoggi's disappearance" or of any kind of threat, he said Wednesday.

The issue threatened the strong relationship the Trump administration has constructed with Mohammed Bin Salman.

The two sides have cooperated on challenging Iran, on supporting Israel and on the war against the Houthis.

But Prince Mohammed has drawn growing scrutiny over his campaign against critics.

Reporters Without Borders said in a statement that between 25 and 30 professional and non-professional journalists are currently detained in Saudi Arabia.