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CIA concludes Saudi crown prince ordered journalist's killing, US media reports

Fayez Nuraldine, AFP | In this file photo taken on October 23, 2018 Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the Future Investment Initiative (FII) conference in the Saudi capital Riyadh.

The US Central Intelligence Agency has concluded Saudi's powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was behind the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, US media reported Friday, citing people close to the matter.

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The US assessment directly contradicts the conclusions of a Saudi prosecutor on Thursday, which exonerated the prince of involvement in the brutal murder.

But The Washington Post, which broke the story, said the CIA found that 15 Saudi agents flew on government aircraft to Istanbul and assassinated Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate.

The CIA declined to comment when asked for confirmation of their conclusions.

Khashoggi: A vocal critic of crown prince

Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist, went missing after entering the Saudi consulate on October 2 to obtain documents for his upcoming marriage to his Turkish fiancé.

In his opinion articles, Khashoggi had been highly critical of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman [known as MBS] policies and Riyadh's intervention in the war in Yemen.

“It has become a 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.”

>> Watch: Saudi Arabia is becoming a 'one-man rule’, Khashoggi tells FRANCE 24

Saudi Arabia -- which quickly dismissed the reported CIA findings -- has repeatedly changed its official narrative of the murder, first denying any knowledge of Khashoggi's whereabouts and later saying he was killed when an argument degenerated into a fistfight.

In the latest version presented by the Saudi prosecutor on Thursday, a 15-member squad was formed to bring Khashoggi back from Istanbul "by means of persuasion" -- but instead ended up killing the journalist and dismembering his body in a "rogue" operation.

A timeline of the Khashoggi affair

The CIA scrubbed multiple intelligence sources, the Post said, among them a phone call between the prince's brother -- the Saudi ambassador to the United States -- and Khashoggi.

The ambassador reportedly told the late journalist that he would be safe to go to the consulate in Istanbul and get the papers he needed.

'Some things you can't do'

But a Saudi embassy spokesperson said that Ambassador Khalid bin Salman had never discussed "anything related to going to Turkey" with Khashoggi.

"Amb Prince Khalid bin Salman has never had any phone conversations with (Khashoggi)," the statement posted on the ambassador's Twitter account said.

"The claims in this purported assessment is false," it said.

Meanwhile, the US intelligence agency also said in determining the crown prince's role it considered him a "de facto ruler" in Saudi Arabia: "The accepted position is that there is no way this happened without him being aware or involved," the Post quoted an official as saying.

That official dubbed Prince Mohammed a "good technocrat" -- but also someone unpredictable who "goes from zero to 60, doesn't seem to understand that there are some things you can't do."

The New York Times later reported that the CIA findings were also based on calls from the kill team to one of the crown prince's senior aides.

Lure Kashoggi back to Saudi Arabia

But the paper said that while the intercepts showed Prince Mohammed was working to lure Khashoggi to Saudi Arabia, the crown prince had not said in the calls that he wanted Khashoggi killed.

The NYT cited officials as saying US and Turkish intelligence as of yet has not found direct evidence connecting the prince to Khashoggi's killing.

The CIA conclusions nevertheless threaten to further fray relations between Washington and key ally Riyadh, which has sought to end discussion of the murder and rejected calls for an international investigation.

On Thursday, the US Treasury slapped sanctions on 17 people, including close aides of Prince Mohammed, suggesting a coordinated effort between Riyadh and Washington to pre-empt the threat of harsher actions from an outraged US Congress.

US President Donald Trump has shied from directly blaming the crown prince but on Friday agreed with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that "any cover up of the incident should not be allowed."

Khashoggi''s editor and friend Karen Attiah speaks out: "He didn''t want to be a dissident or a rebel. He just wanted to write."

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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