UK increases pressure on Saudi Arabia over Khashoggi killing
- Britain’s top diplomat is in Riyadh to try to convince royal family to cooperate with Turkish investigation into journalist’s murder
British foreign minister Jeremy Hunt met Saudi Arabia’s King Salman in Riyadh on Monday on a visit to press for Saudi leaders to cooperate with an investigation into the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and for an end to the war in Yemen.
Hunt was also due to meet the kingdom’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose aides were involved in Khashoggi’s murder.
The visit comes as Riyadh, already under scrutiny for civilian deaths in Yemen air strikes, is facing global criticism and potential sanctions over Khashoggi’s killing inside its Istanbul consulate on October 2.
Speaking before the diplomatically fraught trip, Hunt said: “It is clearly unacceptable that the full circumstances behind his murder still remain unclear. We encourage the Saudi authorities to cooperate fully with the Turkish investigation into his death, so that we deliver justice for his family and the watching world … The international community remain united in horror and outrage at the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi one month ago.”
Hunt’s trip was preceded by talks in Riyadh on Sunday between Simon McDonald, the foreign office permanent secretary, and Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister.
But Hunt’s arrival will be the first meeting between a senior western minister and the Saudi royal family since the circumstances of Khashoggi’s killing became clear, including the Saudi admission that its intelligence agents killed Khashoggi in a premeditated murder.
Saudi Arabia insists Prince Mohammed had no knowledge of the plot to kill Khashoggi, and has arrested 18 people it says were involved in the operation, including two of the prince’s closest aides.
Many hoped that Saudi embarrassment over Khashoggi’s killing would help it bow to international pressure over potential peace talks in Yemen.
But the opposite has happened, with Saudi Arabia stepping up efforts to seize the strategic port of Hodeidah, making it more difficult for peace talks to start.
Nevertheless, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been pressuring Prince Mohammed. On Saturday he claimed an audio recording of Khashoggi’s killing had been passed to Saudi Arabia, the United States, Germany, France and Britain. “They have listened to all the conversations in them. They know,” Erdogan said.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Monday said his intelligence agencies had listened to the recordings but he had not heard them yet.
Turkish journalists, normally well briefed, said Khashoggi’s last words on the recording were: “I’m suffocating … Take this bag off my head, I’m claustrophobic.”
Saudi officials said initially that Khashoggi had left the consulate, later saying he died in an unplanned “rogue operation”. The kingdom’s public prosecutor, Saud al-Mojeb, has since admitted the journalist was killed in a premeditated attack.
British sources did not officially confirm the UK had been passed a copy of the recording, although they say UK intelligence services have had access to it.
On Monday, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said France did not have any recordings as far as he was aware, contradicting Erdogan’s remarks. Asked in a France 2 interview whether he was accusing Erdogan of lying, Le Drian said “it means that he has a political game to play in these circumstances”.
Turkey has not revealed whether the tape implicates Prince Mohammed in the killing. His chief domestic aide Saad al-Qahtani was sacked two weeks after the assassination, as was a deputy intelligence chief. The prince insists he played no role and his defenders claim the hitmen overreached in a bid to please their masters.
Hunt has said the UK response to the murder will in part be determined by the level of Saudi cooperation with the inquiry and credibility of assurances that such a killing will never be repeated.
Shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry said: “It will be deeply concerning if Jeremy Hunt’s visit represents yet more empty talk, when what we urgently need is concrete action to hold Saudi Arabia to account for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, and bring an immediate end to their assault on the port of Hodeidah, which is threatening the lives of millions of Yemeni civilians.”
Additional reporting by Reuters