ANKARA - Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday refused to blame key US ally Saudi Arabia over the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi even as Riyadh faced new claims he was killed and tortured inside its Istanbul consulate.

After talks with the Saudi leadership in Riyadh marked by expressions of mutual goodwill, Pompeo in Ankara met President Recep Tayyip Erdogan whose government also remains wary of giving public details about Khashoggi’s fate.

Pro-government Turkish media published gruesome new allegations Khashoggi was killed by being gradually dismembered by a Saudi assassination squad, some of whom the New York Times said were tied to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

But Pompeo declared he did not want “to talk about any of the facts”, while President Donald Trump said innocence must be presumed, drawing a parallel with his US Supreme Court judge nominee who faced sexual assault accusations.

The controversy has blown a massive hole in attempts by Prince Mohammed to promote himself as a modern reformer and led to a spate of cancellations from a major Riyadh investment conference scheduled next week.

Khashoggi, a former regime insider who became critical of Prince Mohammed, has not been seen since he stepped inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2 to sort out marriage paperwork.

Turkish police on Monday night undertook an eight-hour search at the consulate, taking away soil and DNA samples. Erdogan said toxic material was found which had been “painted over”.

A search expected on Tuesday at the consul’s residence did not take place as family members were still present but should go ahead on Wednesday, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said.

The Saudi consul Mohammed al-Otaibi left Istanbul for Riyadh on a scheduled Saudia flight Tuesday afternoon, with Ankara insisting he had not been expelled and left by his own choice.

Pompeo came to Ankara after Riyadh where he held a 20-minute talk with King Salman and then a brief meeting and much lengthier dinner with his son Prince Mohammed. The top US diplomat said that in Saudi Arabia he stressed the “importance of them conducting a complete investigation into the disappearance” and Riyadh had vowed to do this.

“They made a commitment that they would show the entire world the results of their investigation,” said Pompeo, adding Saudi also vowed that no-one would have immunity.

But he refused to be drawn on whether Khashoggi was alive or dead and who could be responsible. “I don’t want to talk about any of the facts. They didn’t want to either.” Pompeo held 40 minutes of talks at the airport with Erdogan, whose government has echoed the American reticence to disclose details or make accusations.

President Donald Trump on Wednesday denied covering up for ally Saudi Arabia in the suspected murder of a critical journalist and said that he should know what happened to Jamal Khashoggi within days. “No not at all, I just want to find out what’s happening,” Trump told reporters in the White House when asked if his consistently cautious approach to the scandal amounts to a cover-up. “I’m not giving cover at all.”

The US president has been on the defensive ever since Khashoggi - a US resident and Washington Post contributor who had criticized Prince Mohammed - vanished on October 2 after visiting the Istanbul consulate.

The Washington Post has accused the administration of US President Donald Trump of performing a “diplomatic cleanup operation” for Riyadh.

In an editorial headlined “Why is the Trump administration cleaning up Saudi Arabia’s mess?” the paper backed calls by UN officials for an independent international commission into the disappearance of the journalist earlier this month, which has tarnished the image of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The controversy has blown a massive hole in Prince Mohammed’s bid to promote himself as the modern face of Saudi Arabia and led to a spate of cancelations by attendees at a major Riyadh investment conference scheduled next week.

But Trump has slow-pedaled on the possibility of action against Saudi Arabia, which he has repeatedly praised as a historic customer for the US weapons industry.

 

 

US may lift Turkey sanctions linked to pastor

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday after talks in Ankara that Washington may now lift sanctions imposed on Turkey during the dispute over its detention of an American pastor.

“We’ll have a decision on that shortly but some of the sanctions that were put in place were directly connected to Pastor Brunson and there’s a logic to now removing those as well,” Pompeo told reporters as his plane refuelled in Belgium.

President Donald Trump’s administration imposed sanctions targeting Turkish Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul and Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu in response to Turkey’s arrest and prosecution of US pastor Andrew Brunson on terror charges.

Ankara then hit back with similar sanctions against members of the US administration.

In all, Brunson was held for two years and was convicted and sentenced Friday of espionage and aiding terror groups, only to be quickly released on the basis of good behaviour and time served.

Trump hailed the release, which has been seen as a opening for Ankara and Washington to restore frayed ties, including with Pompeo, who met President Recep Tayyip Erdogan earlier Wednesday.

After his meeting with Pompeo in Ankara, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters that sanctions were “nonsense”.

“We agree that in our relations, there should be no sanctions like this and other issues,” he said. “As long as there are sanctions, relations can go nowhere.”

The Turkish lira has rallied against the US dollar in the past week following Brunson’s release.

On Wednesday the Turkish currency stood at 5.55 against the greenback, a gain in value of over two per cent at 1530 GMT after Pompeo’s remarks.