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Turkey to search Saudi consulate after Erdogan, king talk

© AFP | Dozens of media organisations -- some with tents -- are keeping vigil outside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul where a Turkish search of the building was finally expected to start nearly two weeks after journalist Jamal Khashoggi disappeared

ISTANBUL (AFP) - 

Turkish investigators were on Monday expected to search the Saudi consulate in Istanbul for the first time since journalist Jamal Khashoggi disappeared, after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and King Salman discussed the case by phone.

Khashoggi, a Saudi national and US resident who became increasingly critical of powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has not been seen since he walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to sort out marriage paperwork on October 2.

Turkish officials have said they believe he was killed -- a claim Saudi Arabia refuted -- and the controversy has dealt a huge blow to the image of the kingdom and efforts by the youthful crown prince to showcase a reform drive.

Riyadh had so far not allowed the search at the Istanbul consulate -- officially Saudi territory -- amid reports both sides were at odds over the conditions of the probe.

But a Turkish diplomatic source said it was expected that the search, a joint operation with Saudi authorities, would "take place towards the evening" Monday.

Dozens of media organisations -- some of whom had set up tents -- were maintaining a constant vigil outside the consulate in expectation of the search finally beginning.

Cleaners were seen going into the building around lunchtime, causing a minor flurry of excitement, an AFP reporter said.

The Saudi delegation that was due to be involved in the search and has been in Turkey since Friday arrived at Istanbul police headquarters, Turkish television said.

- 'No-one can undermine ties -

The development came after Erdogan and King Salman had their first telephone talks since the controversy erupted, in what appeared to be a conciliatory conversation according to official readouts.

While lurid claims have appeared in Turkish media -- including that Khashoggi was tortured and dismembered -- the Turkish leadership has so far refrained from pointing the finger directly at Riyadh in public comments.

Salman emphasised the importance of the Turkey-Saudi relationship and said no-one should be able to "undermine the strength of this relationship," official Saudi media said.

He also thanked Erdogan for "welcoming the kingdom's proposal to form a joint working group" on the disappearance.

Erdogan and Salman discussed "the issue of shedding light on the case of Jamal Khashoggi" and also emphasised the "importance of creating a joint working group within the framework of the investigation," said a Turkish presidential source, who asked not to be named.

- 'Davos in Desert' unravels -

The controversy has troubled Saudi's traditional Western allies -- who are key arms suppliers to the kingdom -- and also undermined efforts by Mohammed bin Salman to present himself as a modernising ruler.

An investment conference seen as a platform for the crown prince due to take place next week in Riyadh and dubbed "Davos in the Desert", has been hit by a string of prominent cancellations.

Business barons including British billionaire Richard Branson and Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, as well as media powerhouses like Bloomberg and CNN, have pulled out of the Future Investment Initiative (FII).

In major new twin blows to the credibility of the event, JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon and Ford chairman Bill Ford also cancelled plans to attend, CNBC reported.

Saudi stocks have been hit, but made a partial comeback Monday after days of heavy losses with the Tadawul All-Shares Index (TASI) rising 1.8 percent two hours after opening.

US President Donald Trump has threatened the kingdom with "severe punishment" if Khashoggi was killed inside its Istanbul mission.

But Riyadh vowed to hit back on Sunday against any punitive measures while Trump has also made clear he is reluctant to curb all-important arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

Britain, France and Germany released a rare joint statement saying they were treating Khashoggi's disappearance "with the utmost seriousness" and calling for a "credible investigation".

© 2018 AFP