(CNN) — Saudi Arabia has confirmed the death of missing Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, claiming he died in a fist fight at the country’s consulate in Istanbul.
An announcement carried on Saudi state TV said discussions between Khashoggi and officials at the consulate quickly turned violent, and ended in his death. Five high-ranking officials have been removed from their posts, including the deputy head of the Saudi intelligence service, and 18 Saudis have been detained, state TV said.
The statement was the first official confirmation of Khashoggi’s death in Turkey 18 days ago, and the first acknowledgment by Saudi Arabia of its role in it.
“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia expresses deep regret at the painful developments that have taken place in this case and affirms the commitment of the authorities in the Kingdom to bring the facts to the attention of the public and to hold accountable all those involved,” the statement said.
Khashoggi disappeared after going to the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul at about 1:15 p.m. on October 2 to obtain paperwork to marry his Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz. She raised the alarm just before 5 p.m, while she was still waiting outside.
According to the Saudis’ explanation, discussions between Khashoggi and those who met him on his arrival at the consulate led to an argument and physical altercation. Those responsible then tried to cover up the death, state TV said.
The Saudis have set up a commission, led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, that will restructure the Saudi general intelligence directorate and will have one month to release a report, state TV said The commission will consist of national security officials, the foreign ministry and the interior ministry.
Saudi Arabia has been under intense pressure since Khashoggi’s disappearance. Turkish officials, mostly speaking privately, have released a steady stream of gory details about what happened to the journalist at the consulate. They said he was killed soon after he entered the embassy, and his body dismembered.
None of the Saudi statements give any clue as to what happened to Khashoggi’s remains.
US officials have told CNN that the operation could not have been carried out without the knowledge of Prince bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler.
The apparent circumstances of Khashoggi’s disappearance caused worldwide revulsion. Businesses pulled out of an investment conference due to be held in Saudi Arabia next week, and US President Donald Trump came under pressure to issue an unequivocal condemnation.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement, “The United States acknowledges the announcement from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia that its investigation into the fate of Jamal Khashoggi is progressing and that it has taken action against the suspects it has identified thus far.”
“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.”
Members of Congress could put pressure on the White House to act. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said on Twitter, “To say that I am skeptical of the new Saudi narrative about Mr. Khashoggi is an understatement.”
A spokesman for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was “deeply troubled” by the news.
“The Secretary-General stresses the need for a prompt, thorough and transparent investigation into the circumstances of Mr. Khashoggi’s death and full accountability for those responsible,” the spokesman said.
In Saudi Arabia, all eyes will be on what happens next. In dispatching Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Asiri, the deputy intelligence chief, Prince bin Salman has lost a key ally. Asiri is believed to have been chief architect of the war with Yemen, and was previously the Saudi-led coalition spokesman in the kingdom’s war against Yemen’s Houthi rebels.
The two-star general’s position as spokesman made him a household name and he was soon part of the crown prince’s inner circle.
According to several sources, he chose the team involved in Khashoggi’s disappearance.