It “certainly looks” as though missing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi is dead, Donald Trump has admitted.
The US president threatened “very severe” consequences if the Saudis are found to have murdered the Washington Post columnist in what appeared to be a toughened response to the situation.
Ahead of Mr Trump’s comments, the administration announced that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin had pulled out of a major upcoming Saudi investment conference and a US official said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had warned the Saudi crown prince that his credibility as a future leader was at stake.
Turkish reports have claimed that Mr Khashoggi, who was last seen entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on October 2, was killed and dismembered inside by members of an assassination squad with ties to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The Saudis have dismissed the reports but have not provided an explanation as to what happened to the writer.
Asked if Mr Khashoggi was dead, Mr Trump said: “It certainly looks that way. … Very sad.”
Asked what consequence Saudi leaders would face if they are found to be responsible, he replied: “It will have to be very severe. It’s bad, bad stuff. But we’ll see what happens.”
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Leading human rights and journalists’ organisations have urged Turkey to ask the United Nations to launch an investigation into the disappearance and “possible extrajudicial execution” of Mr Khashoggi.
In Istanbul, a leaked surveillance photo showed a man who has been a member of the crown prince’s entourage during trips abroad walking into the Saudi Consulate just before Mr Khashoggi vanished there.
The US vice-president Mike Pence said earlier in Colorado that “the world deserves answers” about what happened to Mr Khashoggi, “and those who are responsible need to be held to account”.
And in Washington, Mr Pompeo said of the investigations in Istanbul: “I told President Trump this morning that we ought to give them a few more days to complete that so that we, too, have a complete understanding of the facts surrounding that, at which point we can make decisions about how, or if, the United States should respond to the incident surrounding Mr Khashoggi.”
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said secretary-general Antonio Guterres remained very concerned about Mr Khashoggi’s fate and “has repeatedly called for the truth to come out in this situation”.