By Tulay Karadeniz and Leah Millis
ANKARA (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara on Wednesday following talks with Saudi Arabia’s king and crown prince about the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
U.S. President Donald Trump, who dispatched his top diplomat to address the crisis, has given Saudi Arabia the benefit of the doubt in Khashoggi’s disappearance, even as U.S. lawmakers pointed the finger at the Saudi leadership, and Western pressure mounted on Riyadh to provide answers.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has said Pompeo would bring information about the case to Ankara, two weeks after Khashoggi vanished when he visited the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to collect documents for his planned marriage.
Turkish officials have said they believe Khashoggi – a prominent critic of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – was murdered and his body removed. Turkish sources have told Reuters the authorities have an audio recording indicating that Khashoggi was killed inside the consulate.
The Saudis have strongly denied the accusations, but U.S. media outlets have reported that they will acknowledge Khashoggi was killed in a botched interrogation. Trump has speculated that “rogue killers” could be responsible, but gave no evidence to back up that theory.
After meeting with King Salman and the crown prince on Tuesday, Pompeo told reporters that Saudi Arabia has committed to conducting a complete investigation into Khashoggi’s disappearance.
How the crown prince, often referred to as MbS, emerges from the Khashoggi disappearance is a test of how the West will deal with Saudi Arabia in the future. At issue will be to what extent the West believes responsibility for Khashoggi lies with the powerful young ruler.
“In each of those meetings I stressed the importance of them conducting a complete investigation into the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi. They made a commitment to do that,” he told reporters travelling with him after boarding the plane for Ankara.
“They said it would be a thorough, complete and transparent investigation,” he said. “They indicated they understood that getting that done in a timely, rapid fashion so they could begin to answer important questions.”
Asked whether they said Khashoggi was alive or dead, Pompeo said: “They didn’t talk about any of the facts.”
Earlier, Trump tweeted that Prince Mohammed had denied knowing what happened in the Saudi consulate.
“I think we have to find out what happened first,” Trump told the Associated Press in an interview on Tuesday. “Here we go again with, you know, you’re guilty until proven innocent. I don’t like that.”
MbS, who has enjoyed a close relationship with the Trump administration, has painted himself as the face of a new, vibrant Saudi Arabia, diversifying its economy away from reliance on oil and making some social changes.
But there has been mounting criticism of some of the prince’s moves, including Riyadh’s involvement in the Yemen war, the arrest of women activists, and a diplomatic row with Canada.
Members of the U.S. Congress, including some of Trump’s fellow Republicans, are among the loudest voices in the United States demanding answers and action on Khashoggi, a U.S. resident and Washington Post columnist who moved to Washington last year fearing retribution for his critical views.
Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican close to Trump, has called Prince Mohammed “a wrecking ball” and accused him of ordering Khashoggi’s murder.
Despite Western concerns about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, Trump still says he is unwilling to pull out of weapons sales agreements with Riyadh.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin plans to attend a high-profile investment conference in Riyadh next week known as “Davos in the desert”, even as IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde joined a growing list of high-profile executives who have pulled out.
The Saudi event is unrelated to the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland.
Saudi Arabia has said it would retaliate against any pressure or economic sanctions.