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Jamal Khashoggi: Turkey police investigate mysterious 'black van' in pursuit of missing Saudi journalist

The UK became first western government to voice concern about the US-based journalist, who wrote a regular column for The Washington Post

Borzou Daragahi
Monday 08 October 2018 20:12 BST
"Where is the Saudi journalist?" asks HaberTurk, a pro-government Turkish TV channel. The disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi has dominated the country's media
"Where is the Saudi journalist?" asks HaberTurk, a pro-government Turkish TV channel. The disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi has dominated the country's media

Mysterious vans that left the Saudi consulate in Istanbul shortly before the disappearance of a dissident journalist are at the centre of a case that has riveted Turkey and the Arab world, as well as drawn the concern of western officials, including the UK government which on Monday described the matter as “extremely serious”.

Turkey upped the pressure on Saudi Arabia Monday over the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi, a high-profile journalist who disappeared from the grounds of his own nation’s consulate last week. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan publicly demanded that Saudi Arabia prove that Mr Khashoggi left the consulate, as it claims.

"The consulate officials cannot save themselves by simply saying ‘he has left’,” Mr Erdogan said during a visit to Budapest, according to Reuters.

Ankara announced that it had summoned the Saudi ambassador, while the private NTV channel reported that Turkey had demanded to search the consulate premises for what appeared to be a second time after Mr Khashoggi’s disappearance.

Turkish officials have said that evidence leads them to conclude preliminarily that Mr Khashoggi, a one-time Saudi insider who had turned against the increasingly powerful Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, was lured into the consulate on 2 October on a routine matter of paperwork, and likely murdered before his corpse was spirited away to an unknown location.

The UK became the first western government to voice concern about the US-based journalist, who wrote a regular column for The Washington Post.

"These are extremely serious allegations," said a British Foreign Office representative in a statement. "We are aware of the latest reports and are working urgently to establish the facts, including with the government of Saudi Arabia.”

The alleged disappearance was carried out with the help of a 15-member team of Saudis who had arrived in Istanbul shortly after Mr Khashoggi’s popped up in Istanbul to seek consular services and departed shortly after he vanished.

Turkish police are reportedly scouring through closed-circuit television footage and airport transit data to glean details about the movements of personnel and vehicles connected to the Saudi consulate.

"A black van will explain the riddle of the Saudi journalist,” said The Sabah newspaper, noting that the vehicle left the consulate two hours after Mr Khashoggi entered.

One Turkish scholar who was briefed on the matter by a security official said authorities were investigating multiple vehicles, including one that resembles a Mercedes Vito often used as a shuttle for the mission. Selim Sazak, a US-based scholar, says he was told by a source with firsthand knowledge of the investigation that Turkish police were looking to see who was in the van, where they were picked up, and where they were dropped off.

“There were some vehicles,” Yasin Aktay, an adviser to Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party, told The Independent. “There were 15 Saudi personnel inside. They were carrying bags and going to the airport. Turkish security cameras can follow up until the airport."

Another vehicle belongs to a consular staffer, and that was being investigated as the one in which mysterious trunks were placed shortly after Mr Khashoggi’s entrance into the consulate.

“At least two vehicles are being investigated,” Mr Sazak said, citing Turkish officials. “One, on the suspicion that it might have been used to carry Jamal Khashoggi out of the consulate. Another, on the suspicion that it might have been used to shuttle some of the people involved.”

Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin on the disappearance of a Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi

News of the mysterious black vans dominated media coverage. Both opposition and pro-government print and broadcast media have made the Khashoggi affair a top story in recent days, prodding the government to respond to what is being regarded as a serious breach of Turkish sovereignty. Though a Saudi national, Mr Khashoggi is also of Turkish ancestry, perhaps making him a more sympathetic figure to the Turkish public.

Mr Erdogan's government finds itself in a tricky position. On the one hand, though it finds itself on the opposite side of several major regional confrontations with Saudi Arabia, it has no interest in a fight with the Crown Prince, whose nation is a potential source of investment revenue at a time when the Turkish economy is on the ropes.

On the other hand, while Turkey itself has a poor recent record on press freedom issues, it has allied itself with Arab world dissidents opposed to autocracies throughout the region.

“It seems that a period of headaches is about to begin for Saudi Arabia,” said a commentary in the pro-Erdogan Aksam newspaper. “A big crisis could break out between Ankara and Riyadh. The horrible ‘extermination’ of a journalist could also bring about the end of Crown Prince Salman.”

Mr Aktay acknowledged that the tremendous national and international attention the case has generated has forced the Turkish government to act. “It has put pressure on the government but the government is not upset by this,” he said. “It should be like this. Something like this could happen to any of us.”

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