RIYADH - The Saudi government acknowledged early Saturday that journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, saying he died during a fistfight, but the new account may do little to ease international demands for the kingdom to be held accountable.
The announcement, which came in a tweet from the Saudi Foreign Ministry, said that an initial investigation by the government's general prosecutor found that the Saudi journalist had been in discussions with people inside the consulate when a quarrel broke out and escalated to a fatal fistfight.
The Saudi government said it fired five top officials and arrested 18 other Saudis as a result of the initial investigation. Those fired included Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's adviser Saud al-Qahtani and deputy intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri.
The announcement marks the first time that Saudi officials have acknowledged that Khashoggi was killed inside the consulate. Ever since he disappeared on Oct. 2 while visiting the mission, Saudi officials have repeatedly said that he left the consulate alive and that they had no information on his whereabouts or fate. He had gone to the consulate to obtain a document he needed for his upcoming marriage.
The Saudi statement comes as the kingdom is facing unprecedented political and economic pressure to disclose what happened to Khashoggi, a critic of the government and a contributing columnist to The Washington Post. But it is unclear whether the Saudi explanation - which clashes with details provided by Turkish investigators and makes no mention of the crown prince - will be enough to satisfy foreign leaders, global business executives and U.S. lawmakers pressing for the perpetrators to be brought to justice.
Turkish investigators had concluded days ago that Khashoggi was killed and dismembered by a Saudi team dispatched to Istanbul. U.S. officials have said that Turkey has audio and video recordings providing evidence that the journalist was interrogated and killed and his body cut into several pieces.
Khashoggi's body has not been recovered, and the Saudi statement did not address what happened to it.
President Donald Trump said Friday night that the arrests were a "great first step" but that he wanted to talk further to the Saudis about the investigation. He added that if sanctions were imposed on the Saudis over the killing, he would prefer they didn't include arms sales.
According to a list confirmed by Turkish officials, 15 Saudis flew to Istanbul on the morning of Oct. 2, participated in an operation that left Khashoggi dead and then quickly left the country. At least 12 members of that team are connected to Saudi security services, and several have links to Mohammed himself, according to a review of passport records, social media, local media reports and other material.
Those personal connections and U.S. intelligence intercepts of Saudi officials discussing a plan to lure Khashoggi home have contributed to a growing suspicion that the crown prince was personally linked to the incident. But the Saudi statement did not implicate him in the killing.
The preliminary investigation conducted by the prosecutor found that the "suspects" traveled to Istanbul to meet with Khashoggi as he had expressed an interest in returning to Saudi Arabia, the official news agency said. Discussions that took place "developed in a negative way" and "led to a fight and a quarrel between some of them and the citizen," it said. "The brawl aggravated to lead to his death and their attempt to conceal and cover what happened," it said.
Investigations are continuing with the 18 detainees, it said, without naming them.
"The Kingdom expresses its deep regret at the painful developments that have taken place and stresses the commitment of the authorities in the Kingdom to bring the facts to the public," the statement said.
The official Saudi statement said King Salman also ordered the creation of a commission to review and "modernize" the kingdom's intelligence operations and report back within a month.
In addition to Qahtani and Assiri, the Saudi news agency named several other military officers who had been fired. They included Maj. Gen. Mohammed bin Saleh al-Rumaih, assistant head of the General Intelligence Directorate; Maj. Gen. Abdullah bin Khalifa al-Shaya, head of General Intelligence for Human Resources; and Gen. Rashad bin Hamed al-Mohammad, director of the General Directorate of Security and Protection.
Qahtani has been one of Mohammed's closest advisers, serving as a strategist and enforcer. He had been referred to in some quarters as the Saudi Stephen Bannon and had created a "blacklist" of online critics of Saudi Arabia. Qahtani had made overtures to Khashoggi and tried to persuade him to return to Saudi Arabia this summer, when U.S. intelligence officials said there was an attempt to lure him back to the kingdom to detain him.
"Do you think I can act by myself without taking orders/guidance?" Qahtani said last year in a tweet that is being widely shared now after the announcement of his firing. "I am an employee and a trustworthy executive to the orders of the king and the crown prince."
Assiri, who has also been close to the crown prince, served for two years as the public face of Saudi Arabia's military intervention in the war in Yemen before his intelligence posting. Assiri, who speaks fluent French and English, held regular news briefings on the state of the battle that were unusual for the Middle East and appeared designed to promote the professionalism of the Saudi war effort.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders issued a statement acknowledging the Saudi announcement that the investigation was progressing and that action had been taken against suspects.
"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," Sanders said.
Other reaction in Washington was more negative.
"To say that I am skeptical of the new Saudi narrative about Mr. Khashoggi is an understatement," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said in a Twitter post. "First we were told Mr. Khashoggi supposedly left the consulate and there was blanket denial of any Saudi involvement. Now, a fight breaks out and he's killed in the consulate, all without knowledge of Crown Prince."
Rep. Adam Schiff, Calif., the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, was also dismissive of the Saudi account.
"The announcement that Jamal Khashoggi was killed while brawling with a team of more than a dozen dispatched from Saudi Arabia is not credible," he said. "If Khashoggi was fighting inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, he was fighting for his life with people sent to capture or kill him." Schiff added, "The kingdom and all involved in this brutal murder must be held accountable, and if the Trump administration will not take the lead, Congress must."
A senior U.S. official said the Saudi explanation raised more questions than it answered about Mohammed's knowledge of the incident. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to give a frank assessment, noted that Assiri and Qahtani are among Mohammed's closest aides and said they could not have acted without orders him.
"It's impossible to blame them for anything without MBS having a direct role," the official said, using Mohammed's initials.
The news of the announcement broke late at night in Riyadh, the Saudi capital. Twitter was immediately filled with mixed reaction, much under the hashtag "jamal is dead." Many tweeters praised the kingdom's action, including one who wrote that "Saudi transparency showed no one is above the law."
Other Saudis saw a potential coverup in the works, one that would ultimately hold Mohammed blameless and eliminate any threat to his leadership.
"A cloud of fear has enveloped the country," one Saudi academic, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing his personal safety, said in an interview. "No one can talk in Saudi Arabia for fear of being dragged into a dungeon." The academic said "very few" Saudis would believe the official version of the case. "Coverups on the way; why did they lie for sixteen days?" the academic said.
Earlier Friday, Turkish prosecutors questioned staffers at the Saudi Consulate, state media said, suggesting that attempts were being made to strengthen a possible criminal case with insider details from the last place Khashoggi was seen alive.
An undisclosed number Turkish employees of the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul were interviewed by prosecutors, the semiofficial Anadolu news agency reported, a day after Turkish authorities began combing through wooded areas outside Istanbul in an apparent search for Khashoggi's remains.
Turkish officials say that Khashoggi - a U.S. resident - was killed by a 15-member Saudi hit squad after he entered the consulate on Oct. 2.
The refocus on the consulate employees suggests that investigators are seeking to bolster a possible criminal case. Turkish officials say they also have an audio tape that purports to record Khashoggi's killing, but the tape has not been shared with American or Saudi officials.
The disappearance of Khashoggi has provoked global criticism of the crown prince, Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler, and convulsed the kingdom as it struggles to respond to increasing international pressure to explain the journalist's fate.
Turkish media reports said more than a dozen Turkish staff members of the consulate - including technicians, drivers, telephone operators and accountants - were being interviewed by prosecutors.
Their accounts could provide valuable insights into the movements of Saudi officials at the mission in the hours and days before and after Khashoggi vanished.
It was not clear why the investigators waited more than two weeks to conduct the interviews, but the move came a day after Turkish officials said they were searching two wooded areas outside Istanbul for possible remains.
Until recently, the inquiry has focused on the consulate in Istanbul's Levent district and the nearby residence of the Saudi consul general, Mohammed al-Otaibi, who left Turkey this week.
Earlier Friday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said his country has not provided the audio recording of Khashoggi's alleged killing to U.S. officials but promised that Turkey would "share with the world" the results of its investigation, according to Anadolu.
On Thursday, President Trump said Khashoggi is likely dead and warned of "very severe" measure against Saudi Arabia if the Saudi government is found to be responsible.
This article was written by Kevin Sullivan, Loveday Morris and Tamer El-Ghobashy, reporters for The Washington Post. The Washington Post's Zakaria Zakaria in Istanbul and Ellen Nakashima in Washington contributed to this report.