Ankara (AFP) - Saudi Arabia promised to ensure a thorough probe and accountability over a missing Saudi journalist but stood by denials the kingdom killed him, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday, as he paid a supportive visit to the under-fire ally.
President Donald Trump dispatched Pompeo on an urgent mission to Riyadh to defuse a crisis over Jamal Khashoggi, an insider turned critic of the conservative monarchy who was last seen on October 2 when he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to sort out marriage paperwork.
After a full day of talks, a statement from Pompeo and a tweet by Trump said that the Saudi leadership "strongly denied knowledge of what took place" in the consulate, without outright rejecting that an incident occurred.
Officials in Turkey, where Pompeo heads on Wednesday, say that the Saudis killed Khashoggi inside the consulate. The Saudis earlier insisted, without evidence, that Khashoggi left freely while later reportedly hinted that rogue elements could be responsible -- a theory that Trump has mused about aloud.
The mysterious circumstances around Khashoggi, a onetime Saudi insider turned critic who lived in the United States and contributed to The Washington Post, have badly dented the international image of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who until recently was hailed in the West as a reformist saviour.
The 33-year-old heir apparent spoke to Pompeo over an evening-long dinner during which Trump called for and received assurances that the Saudis would "rapidly expand" an investigation.
"My assessment from these meetings is that there is serious commitment to determine all the facts and ensure accountability, including accountability for Saudi Arabia's senior leaders or senior officials," Pompeo said in a statement.
The crown prince "pledged that the work of the Saudi public prosecutor will produce a full and complete conclusion with full transparency for the world to see," Pompeo added.
Trump earlier threatened "severe punishment" if it is proven that Khashoggi was killed in the consulate.
But he has ruled out cutting sales of US weapons -- of which Saudi Arabia is the largest foreign buyer -- and on Tuesday he also drew a parallel with the accusations of sexual assault that nearly brought down his Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
"Here we go again with, you know, you're guilty until proven innocent," he said. "I don't like that. We just went through that with Justice Kavanaugh and he was innocent all the way as far as I'm concerned," he told the Associated Press.
- Alliance on display -
Saudi Arabia has been closely linked to the United States for more than a half century as a critical oil supplier, with relations warming under Trump as the US administration aggressively confronts the kingdom's regional rival Iran.
"We are strong and old allies. We face our challenges together," the crown prince told Pompeo in the palace decked out with imposing chandeliers and gold-plated furniture, to which Pompeo said, "Absolutely."
Just as Pompeo was visiting Riyadh, the US Treasury Department slapped fresh sanctions on Iran, punishing a paramilitary group and a network of businesses accused of financing it.
However, a US official said Tuesday the US-Saudi alliance did not mean Washington is "ignoring or downplaying" the incident.
The Saudis have faced intense criticism over the Khashoggi incident, which comes just after US senators nearly succeeded in cutting off support for Riyadh's air campaign against rebels in Yemen, which a UN report says has killed thousands of civilians.
There have also been sharp words targeting Mohammed bin Salman, known by his initials MbS, from US senators on both the Republican and Democratic sides, amid calls for Congress to halt US arms sales to the kingdom.
The New York Times reported Tuesday that a suspect identified by Turkey was a frequent companion of the prince's. Three other suspects are linked to his security detail and a fifth is a high-level forensic doctor, the Times said.
Saudi Arabia warned before Pompeo's visit that the leading oil exporter can retaliate, with an official quoted in state media warning that the kingdom "plays an effective and vital role in the world economy" and can "respond to any action with a bigger one".
- Turks step up probe -
Turkish authorities have stepped up their investigation into Khashoggi's disappearance, with police searching the Saudi consulate for eight hours into Tuesday morning, taking a sample of the garden soil.
On Tuesday, Turkish media reported that Saudi Arabia's consul to Istanbul, Mohammed al-Otaibi, had returned to Riyadh as Turkish authorities prepare to search his residence.
UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet called Tuesday for the lifting of the immunity of officials who might be involved in Khashoggi's disappearance and foreign ministers from the G7 called for a "transparent" probe.
The controversy has not only troubled the Saudis' traditional Western allies, who are key arms suppliers to the kingdom, but undermined efforts by Mohammed bin Salman to present himself as a modernising ruler.
An investment conference seen as a platform for the crown prince and dubbed the "Davos in the Desert", scheduled to take place in Riyadh next week, has been hit by a string of prominent cancellations.
International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde was the latest to pull out on Tuesday, with an IMF spokesman saying she had postponed her planned trip to the Middle East with a stop in Saudi Arabia.