Turkish police have concluded that prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered inside the Saudi mission in Istanbul after going missing Tuesday, an unnamed government official said Saturday.
"Based on their initial findings, the police believe that the journalist was killed by a team especially sent to Istanbul and who left the same day," the official told AFP.
The news came hours after police confirmed that around 15 Saudis, including officials, arrived in Istanbul on two flights on Tuesday and were at the consulate at the same time as the journalist.
Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributor, "did not come back out" of the building, police had told the state-run Anadolu news agency.
A former government adviser who has been critical of some policies of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Riyadh's intervention in the war in Yemen, Khashoggi has lived in self-imposed exile in the United States since last year to avoid possible arrest.
In an interview with Bloomberg, the Saudi crown prince earlier denied that the journalist had been inside the consulate and said he was ready to allow Turkish authorities to search the building.
Reacting to the news of his alleged murder, Khashoggi's Turkish fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, said she "did not believe he has been killed."
Yasin Aktay, of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) who was close to the journalist, said Khashoggi had made an appointment in advance with the consulate and called to check the documents were ready.
"His friends had warned him 'don't go there, it is not safe' but he said they could not do anything to him in Turkey," said Atkay, adding that he still hoped the allegations of his friend's death were untrue.
- 'We have nothing to hide' -
Prince Mohammed said in an interview with Bloomberg published Friday that the journalist had left the consulate and Turkish authorities could search the building, which is Saudi sovereign territory.
"We are ready to welcome the Turkish government to go and search our premises," he said, adding: "We have nothing to hide".
Turkey's foreign ministry on Wednesday summoned Saudi Arabia's ambassador over the issue.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists demanded Riyadh give "a full and credible account" of what happened to Khashoggi inside the consulate.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said on Twitter that if reports of his death were confirmed, "this would constitute a horrific, utterly deplorable, and absolutely unacceptable assault on press freedom".
"It would clearly have been a State crime of another age," RSF secretary general Christophe Deloire tweeted Sunday.
A spokesperson for the US State Department said: "We are not in a position to confirm these reports, but we are closely following the situation."
- 'Reasoned criticism' -
Khashoggi fled the country in September 2017, months after Prince Mohammed was appointed heir to the throne, amid a campaign that saw dozens of dissidents arrested including intellectuals and Islamic preachers.
The journalist said he had been banned from writing in the pan-Arab Al-Hayat newspaper, owned by Saudi prince Khaled bin Sultan al-Saud, over his defence of the Muslim Brotherhood which Riyadh has blacklisted as a terrorist organisation.
He has also criticised Saudi Arabia's role in Yemen, where Riyadh leads a military coalition fighting alongside the government in its war with Iran-backed rebels.
The Washington Post chose to leave a blank space where Khashoggi's column would have been in its Friday edition in support of the missing writer.
In an article published by Al-Jazeera this week, journalist and analyst Bill Law described Khashoggi as "a brilliant journalist with a fiercely independent mind but with sufficient pragmatism to know just how close to the red lines he could go".
"His is a voice of reasoned criticism and wise comment that the Saudi crown prince should listen to," wrote Law.
Saudi Arabia, which ranks 169th out of 180 on RSF's World Press Freedom Index, has launched a modernisation campaign since Prince Mohammed's appointment as heir to the throne.
But the ultra-conservative kingdom, which won plaudits in June for lifting a ban on women driving, has drawn heavy criticism for its handling of dissent.
Khashoggi's criticism of Prince Mohammed's policies have appeared in both the Arab and Western press.
In a March 6 Guardian editorial co-authored with Robert Lacey, he wrote: "For his domestic reform programme, the crown prince deserves praise.
"But at the same time, the brash and abrasive young innovator has not encouraged or permitted any popular debate" on the changes.