Saudi Arabia denies holding missing Washington Post columnist

The Saudi Arabian Consulate in Istanbul said Thursday a Saudi contributor to the Washington Post left its building before disappearing, directly contradicting Turkish officials who say they believe the writer is still inside.

Jamal Khashoggi, who lives in the U.S., not seen since visit to Saudi Consulate in Istanbul

Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, showns during a news conference in Manama, Bahrain on Feb. 1, 2015, is a contributor to the Washington Post, and the newspaper is 'extremely concerned' as it seems the writer has been missing since going to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. (Hasan Jamali/Associated Press)

Turkey's foreign ministry has summoned Saudi Arabia's ambassador for consultations over the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi after he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkish sources said on Thursday.

They said the Saudi envoy was called in on Wednesday to clarify the whereabouts of Khashoggi, a critic of Riyadh's foreign policy and its crackdown on dissent who left Saudi Arabia last year saying he feared retribution for his views.

The Saudi Arabian Consulate in Istanbul says Khashoggi, a contributor to the Washington Post, left its building before disappearing, directly contradicting Turkish officials who say they believe the writer is still inside.

A Saudi Arabian flag flies on Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul. (Ozan KoseéAFP/Getty Images)

The comments further deepen the mystery surrounding what happened to Jamal Khashoggi, who had been living in self-imposed exile in the U.S. while writing columns critical of the kingdom and its policies under upstart Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Khashoggi's apparent disappearance also threatened to further deteriorate relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, which are on opposite sides of a four-nation boycott of Qatar and other regional crises.

Turkish broadcaster NTV said the ambassador told Turkish officials he had no information about Khashoggi. Turkey's deputy foreign minister Yavuz Selim Kiran told the Saudi envoy that the issue "should be cleared up immediately," NTV said.

In a statement carried by the state-run Saudi Press Agency, the consulate did not challenge that Khashoggi, 59, had disappeared while on a visit to the diplomatic post.

"The consulate confirmed that it is carrying out followup procedures and co-ordination with the Turkish local authorities to uncover the circumstances of the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi after he left the consulate building," the statement said, without elaborating.

The statement comes after a spokesperson for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters Wednesday night that authorities believed the journalist was still there.

People wait by the the entrance to a blocked road leading to the Saudi Arabian Consulate in Istanbul on Thursday. (Emrah Gurel/Associated Press)

"According to the information we have, this person who is a Saudi citizen is still at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul," Ibrahim Kalin said. "We don't have information to the contrary."

On Tuesday, Khashoggi entered the consulate to get paperwork he needed in order to be married next week, said his fiancée, Hatice, who gave only her first name for fear of retribution. He gave her his mobile phones for safekeeping, something common as embassies throughout the Middle East routinely require phones to be left outside as a security precaution.

Hours later, Hatice said she called Khashoggi's friends in a panic when he never emerged.

"I don't know what has happened to him. I can't even guess how such a thing can happen to him," she told The Associated Press. "There is no law or lawsuit against him. He is not a suspect, he has not been convicted. There is nothing against him. He is just a man whose country doesn't like his writings or his opinions."

The Post said it was "extremely concerned" about Khashoggi.

"We have reached out to anyone we think might be able to help locate him and assure his safety, including U.S., Turkish and Saudi officials," the Post's editorial page editor, Fred Hiatt, said in a statement.

Ties with Saudi elite

The State Department said it was aware of the situation and was seeking more information. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke by telephone Wednesday with Prince Mohammed, but it was unclear if the case involving Khashoggi's whereabouts came up in their conversation.

Khashoggi is a longtime Saudi journalist, foreign correspondent, editor and columnist whose work has been controversial in the past in the ultraconservative Sunni kingdom. He went into a self-imposed exile in the United States following the ascension of Prince Mohammed, now next in line to the throne to his father, 82-year-old King Salman.

Khashoggi was known for his interviews and travels with Osama bin Laden between 1987 and 1995, including in Afghanistan, where he wrote about the battle against the Soviet occupation. In the early 1990s, he tried to persuade bin Laden to reconcile with the Saudi royal family and return home from his base in Sudan, but the al-Qaeda leader refused.

Khashoggi maintained ties with Saudi elite and launched a satellite news channel, Al-Arab, from Bahrain in 2015 with the backing of Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal. The channel aired less than 11 hours before it was shut down. Its billionaire backer was detained in the Ritz Carlton roundup overseen by Prince Mohammed in 2017.

As a contributor to the Post, Khashoggi has written extensively about Saudi Arabia, including criticizing its war in Yemen, its recent diplomatic spat with Canada and its arrest of women's rights activists after the lifting of a ban on women driving.

The dispute over Khashoggi's disappearance also threatens to reopen rifts between Ankara and Riyadh. Turkey has supported Qatar amid a yearlong boycott by Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates over a political dispute. Turkey's support of political Islamists, like the Muslim Brotherhood, also grates leaders in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, which label the organization a "terrorist group" threatening their hereditarily ruled nations.

Press freedom groups have decried Khashoggi's disappearance. The Vienna-based International Press Institute wrote a letter to Saudi King Salman calling on the monarch to ensure Khashoggi's immediate release.

"If, as it claims, Saudi Arabia truly wishes to transition to a more open society, it will have to accept the fundamental rights of freedom of expression and freedom of the press," wrote Ravi R. Prasad, the institute's head of advocacy.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists also expressed concern, saying "given the Saudi authorities' pattern of quietly detaining critical journalists, Khashoggi's failure to emerge from the Saudi consulate on the day he entered is a cause for alarm."

With files from Reuters