RIYADH – The Saudi government acknowledged early Saturday that journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed while visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, saying he died during a fist fight.
The announcement, which came in a tweet from the Saudi foreign ministry, said that an initial investigation by the government's general prosecutor found that Khashoggi been in discussions with people inside the consulate when a quarrel broke out, escalating to a fatal fist fight.
The Saudi government said it had fired five top officials and arrested 18 other Saudis as a result of the initial investigation. Those fired included Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's adviser Saud al-Qahtani and deputy intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri.
The announcement marks the first time that Saudi officials have acknowledged that Khashoggi was killed inside the consulate. Ever since he disappeared on Oct. 2 while visiting the mission, Saudi officials have repeatedly said that he left the consulate alive and that they had no information about his whereabouts or fate. He had gone to the consulate to obtain a document he needed for an upcoming wedding.
Turkish investigators had concluded days ago that Khashoggi, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post, was killed and dismembered by a Saudi team dispatched to Istanbul. U.S. officials have said that Turkey has audio and video recordings providing evidence that he was interrogated, killed and then cut into several pieces.
The official Saudi statement said King Salman also ordered creation of a commission to review and "modernize" the Kingdom's intelligence operations and report back within a month.
According to a list confirmed by Turkish officials, 15 Saudis flew to Istanbul on the morning of Oct. 2, participated in an operation that left Khashoggi dead and then quickly departed the country. At least 12 members of that team are connected to Saudi security services and several have links to Mohammed himself, according to a review of passport records, social media, local press reports and other material.
Those personal connections and U.S. intelligence intercepts of Saudi officials discussing a plan to lure Khashoggi home have contributed to a growing suspicion that the crown prince was personally linked to the incident. But the Saudi statement did not implicate him in the killing.
The preliminary investigation conducted by the prosecutor found that the "suspects" traveled to Istanbul to meet with Khashoggi as he had expressed interest in returning to Saudi Arabia, the official news agency said. Discussions that took place "developed in a negative way" and "led to a fight and a quarrel between some of them and the citizen," it said. "The brawl aggravated to lead to his death and their attempt to conceal and cover what happened," it said.
Investigations are continuing with the 18 detainees, it said, without naming them.
"The Kingdom expresses its deep regret at the painful developments that have taken place and stresses the commitment of the authorities in the Kingdom to bring the facts to the public," the statement said.
In addition to Qahtani and Assiri, the official Saudi statement named several other senior military officials who had been fired. They included Gen. Rashad bin Hamid al Mihmadi, General Abdullah bin Khalef al Shaiyi, and General Mohammed bin Saleh al Rumaih.
Qahtani has been one of Mohammed's closest advisors, serving as a strategist and enforcer. He had been referred to in some quarters as the Saudi Steve Bannon and had created a "blacklist" of online critics of Saudi Arabia. Qahtani had reached out to Khashoggi and attempted to persuade him to come back to Saudi Arabia this summer, when U.S. intelligence officials said there was an attempt to lure him back to the kingdom to detain him.
"Do you think I can act by myself without taking orders/guidance?" he said in a tweet last year that was widely shared after the announcement. "I am an employee and a trustworthy executive to the orders of the king and the crown prince."
Assiri, who has also been close to the crown prince, served for two years as the public face of Saudi Arabia's military intervention in the war in Yemen before his intelligence posting. Assiri, who speaks fluent French and English, held regular news briefings on the state of the battle that were unusual for the Middle East and appeared designed to promote the professionalism of the Saudi war effort.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders issued a statement acknowledging the Saudi announcement that the investigation was progressing and that action had been taken against suspects.
"We will continue to closely follow the international investigations into this tragic incident and advocate for justice that is timely, transparent, and in accordance with all due process. We are saddened to hear confirmation of Mr. Khashoggi's death, and we offer our deepest condolences to his family, fiancée, and friends," Sanders said.
Other reaction in Washington was more negative.
"To say that I am skeptical of the new Saudi narrative about Mr. Khashoggi is an understatement," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said in a Twitter post. "First we were told Mr. Khashoggi supposedly left the consulate and there was blanket denial of any Saudi involvement. Now, a fight breaks out and he's killed in the consulate, all without knowledge of Crown Prince."
Earlier Friday, Turkish prosecutors questioned staff at the Saudi Consulate, state media said, suggesting attempts to strengthen a possible criminal case with insider details from the last place journalist Jamal Khashoggi was seen alive.
An undisclosed number consulate employees in Istanbul were interviewed by prosecutors, the semiofficial Anadolu news agency reported, a day after Turkish authorities began combing through wooded areas outside Istanbul in an apparent search for Khashoggi's remains.
Turkish officials say that Khashoggi – a U.S. resident – was killed by a 15-member Saudi hit squad after he entered the consulate on Oct. 2.
The refocus on the consulate employees suggests that investigators are seeking to bolster a possible criminal case. Turkish officials say they also have an audio tape that purports to record Khashoggi's killing, but the tape has not been shared with American or Saudi officials.
The disappearance of Khashoggi has provoked global criticism of the crown prince, Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler, and convulsed the kingdom as it struggles to respond to increasing international pressure to explain the journalist's fate.
Turkish media reports said more than a dozen Turkish staff members of the consulate – including technicians, drivers, telephone operators and accountants – were being interviewed by prosecutors.
Their accounts could provide valuable insights into the movements of Saudi officials at the mission in the hours and days before and after Khashoggi vanished.
It was not clear why the investigators waited more than two weeks to conduct the interviews, but the move comes a day after Turkish officials said they are searching two wooded areas just outside Istanbul for possible remains.
Until recently, the inquiry has focused on the consulate in Istanbul's Levent district and the nearby residence of the Saudi consul general, Mohammed al-Otaibi, who left Turkey this week.
Earlier Friday, Turkey's foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said his country has not provided the audio recording of Khashoggi's alleged killing to American officials but promised that Turkey would "share with the world" the results of its investigation, according to Anadolu.