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Thursday October 22nd, 2020 8:35AM

Images surface of Saudis allegedly sent to target writer

By The Associated Press
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ISTANBUL (AP) — Turkish media published images Wednesday of an alleged 15-member Saudi "assassination squad" and video of suspicious movements at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul following journalist Jamal Khashoggi's disappearance a week ago, putting new pressure on the kingdom amid growing international concern for the writer.

Saudi Arabia remained silent as the images, though not offering definitive proof about Khashoggi's fate, played across television networks in Turkey and around the world. Turkish officials fear the team killed Khashoggi, who wrote critically of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The kingdom dismisses the allegation as "baseless."

However, Saudi Arabia has offered no evidence to support its contention that the writer left the consulate unharmed and vanished into Istanbul while his fiancée waited impatiently outside. Politicians in the United States, Riyadh's main ally, have warned that any harm done to the Washington Post contributor will jeopardize America's relations with the world's largest oil exporter.

State-run broadcaster TRT aired video purportedly showing the Saudis arriving by private jet and then leaving a hotel. The footage shows Khashoggi entering the consulate on Oct. 2. An hour and 54 minutes later, according to the time stamp, a black Mercedes Vito with diplomatic license plates, which resembled a van parked outside of the consulate when the writer walked in, drives some 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) to the consul's home, where it parks inside a garage.

The footage all seemed to come from surveillance cameras, which would have been posted throughout the district housing the Saudi consulate and other diplomatic missions. No one has produced any such footage of Khashoggi leaving the consulate.

Turkey's Hurriyet newspaper and other media alleged Wednesday that the Saudi Consulate's 28 local staff were given leave on Oct. 2 on grounds that a "diplomats' meeting" would be held there on that day. The reports did not cite a source and there was no official confirmation of the claim.

The Sabah newspaper, which is close to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, published images of what it referred to as the "assassination squad" apparently taken at passport control. It said they checked into two hotels in Istanbul on Oct. 2 and left later that day.

Turkey's private NTV news channel identified one member of the alleged 15-member team as the head of a Saudi forensic science agency. It alleged he may have been responsible for cleaning up any incriminating evidence. The station did not cite a source for its report.

Khashoggi had written a series of columns for the Washington Post that were critical of Saudi Arabia's assertive Prince Mohammed, who has led a widely publicized drive to reform the conservative Sunni monarchy but has also presided over the arrests of activists and businessmen.

Erdogan has not accused Saudi Arabia of being responsible for Khashoggi's disappearance but has said that if the Saudis have footage of him leaving the consulate they should release it. Saudi Arabia is a major investor in Turkey, despite Ankara's support for the Gulf nation of Qatar, which is under a blockade led by Saudi Arabia and three other Arab nations.

Police and investigators in Turkey typically release video and information through state-run or otherwise government-friendly media outlets, as opposed to holding briefings like those common in Western nations.

On Wednesday, the Post published a column by Khashoggi's fiancée, Hatice Cengiz. She said the writer first visited the consulate on Sept. 28 "despite being somewhat concerned that he could be in danger." He later returned Oct. 2 after being promised the necessary paperwork so the two could be married.

"At this time, I implore President Trump and first lady Melania Trump to help shed light on Jamal's disappearance," Cengiz wrote. "I also urge Saudi Arabia, especially King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to show the same level of sensitivity and release CCTV footage from the consulate."

She added: "Although this incident could potentially fuel a political crisis between the two nations, let us not lose sight of the human aspect of what happened."

Khashoggi had sought to become a U.S. citizen after living in self-imposed exile since last year, fearing repercussions for his criticism of the prince, Cengiz wrote.

Trump, who took his first overseas trip as U.S. president to the kingdom and whose son-in-law Jared Kushner has close ties to Prince Mohammed, said Tuesday he had not yet talked to the Saudis about Khashoggi, "but I will be at some point," without elaborating.

Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy said Tuesday that Saudi authorities have notified Ankara that they were "open to cooperation" and would allow the consulate building to be searched. It's unclear when such a search would take place.

Embassies and consulates under the Vienna Convention are technically foreign soil and must be protected by host nations. Saudi Arabia may have agreed to the search in order to reassure its Western allies and the international community.

___

Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey, and Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

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