ISTANBUL (Dispatches) – Saudi authorities refused on Wednesday to allow Turkish police to continue investigating the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul from which Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi disappeared last week, according to Turkish sources close to the investigation.
Turkish officials have accused the Saudis of killing Khashoggi inside the building. On Tuesday, Saudi officials gave three Turkish police investigators access to all parts of the consulate, excluding the nearby consul’s residence, according to the sources.
They conducted a preliminary investigation and stayed with Saudi consulate staff for about an hour and then left.
But on Wednesday morning, after Turkish pro-government media outlets reported the names, photos and details of 15 Saudis which they said were leaked by Turkish authorities, the Saudis changed their minds, according to the sources.
Turkish sources have also told Middle East Eye that three of the 15 Saudis who entered the country on the day Khashoggi vanished are from an elite unit called the "rough sword" which protects Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman.
"They are delaying the search permit,” one of the sources told Middle East Eye.
Saudi diplomats in the kingdom’s embassy in Ankara phoned Turkish diplomats to let them know the investigation had been stopped because the 15 men were publicly accused without any evidence, including Khashoggi’s body.
Sources close to the investigation confirmed the names of the 15 suspects to MEE. The Saudis accused Turkey of giving the kingdom a bad reputation, the sources said.
Speaking to MEE after the investigation was halted, a Turkish source with direct information about the investigation said that the police are confident that the forensics they already have in their possession - including samples from the sewers in the consulate - will find evidence of crime.
Overnight, Turkish media outlets also reported that the 15 Saudis who entered the country around the time of Khashoggi’s appointment stayed at two hotels – the Wyndham Grand and the Movenpick – near the consulate.
CCTV footage of the purported suspects within the hotels and also at Ataturk airport were also released on Wednesday.
According to the Turkish sources that spoke to MEE, the 15 Saudis checked into separate hotel rooms from which police have been able to obtain fingerprints, the sources said.
The police are investigating guests, particularly Arabs, who stayed at both hotels during the same time period, though many are thought to have been in Turkey for plastic surgery operations.
Turkish police forces have also expanded their investigation and are now reviewing footage from cameras in front of the Emirati and Egyptian consulates in Istanbul to see if there was any interaction with Saudi officials of interest, the sources said.
Turkish media published images Wednesday of the 15-member Saudi "assassination squad" and video of suspicious movements at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Saudi Arabia remained silent as the images played across television networks in Turkey and around the world. Turkish officials fear the team killed Khashoggi, who wrote critically of the Saudi crown prince.
Saudi Arabia has offered no evidence to support its contention that the writer left the consulate unharmed and vanished into Istanbul while his fiancee waited impatiently outside. Politicians in the United States, Riyadh's main ally, have warned that any harm done to the Washington Post contributor will jeopardize America's relations with the world's largest oil exporter.
State-run broadcaster TRT aired video purportedly showing the Saudis arriving by private jet and then leaving a hotel. The footage shows Khashoggi entering the consulate on Oct. 2.
An hour and 54 minutes later, according to the time stamp, a black Mercedes Vito with diplomatic license plates, which resembled a van parked outside of the consulate when the writer walked in, drives some 2 kilometers to the consul's home, where it parks inside a garage.
The footage all seemed to come from surveillance cameras, which would have been posted throughout the district housing the Saudi consulate and other diplomatic missions. No one has produced any such footage of Khashoggi leaving the consulate.
Turkey's Hurriyet newspaper and other media alleged Wednesday that the Saudi consulate's 28 local staff were given leave on Oct. 2 on grounds that a "diplomats' meeting" would be held there on that day.
The Sabah newspaper, which is close to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, published images of what it referred to as the "assassination squad" apparently taken at passport control. It said they checked into two hotels in Istanbul on Oct. 2 and left later that day.
Turkey's private NTV news channel identified one member of the 15-member team as the head of a Saudi forensic science agency. It said he may have been responsible for cleaning up any incriminating evidence.
Khashoggi had written a series of columns for the Washington Post that were critical of Saudi Arabia's assertive Prince Muhammad, who has led a widely publicized drive to purportedly reform the Wahhabi monarchy but has also presided over the arrests of activists and businessmen.
Erdogan has not accused Saudi Arabia of being responsible for Khashoggi's disappearance but has said that if the Saudis have footage of him leaving the consulate they should release it.
Saudi Arabia is a major investor in Turkey, despite Ankara's support for the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar, which is under a blockade led by Saudi Arabia and three other Arab nations.
Police and investigators in Turkey typically release video and information through state-run or otherwise government-friendly media outlets.
On Wednesday, the Post published a column by Khashoggi's fiancee, Hatice Cengiz. She said the writer first visited the consulate on Sept. 28 "despite being somewhat concerned that he could be in danger." He later returned Oct. 2 after being promised the necessary paperwork so the two could be married.
Khashoggi had sought to become a U.S. citizen after living in self-imposed exile since last year, fearing repercussions for his criticism of the prince, Cengiz wrote.
Trump, who took his first overseas trip as U.S. president to the kingdom and whose son-in-law Jared Kushner has close ties to Prince Muhammad, said Tuesday he had not yet talked to the Saudis about Khashoggi, "but I will be at some point," without elaborating.
Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy said Tuesday that Saudi authorities have notified Ankara that they were "open to cooperation" and would allow the consulate building to be searched. It's unclear when such a search would take place.
Embassies and consulates under the Vienna Convention are technically foreign soil and must be protected by host nations.