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Pompeo meets Turkey's Erdogan, says Saudis 'promised accountability' over Khashoggi disappearance

The Saudis are "determined to get to the bottom" of what happened, said the secretary of state.
Image: Turkish President Erdogan meets with U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo in Ankara
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Ankara on Wednesday. Murat Cetinmuhurdar/Presidential Press Office / Reuters

Saudi Arabia has pledged to hold senior officials accountable if they are implicated in the disappearance and alleged killing of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday.

"They made a commitment to hold anyone connected to any wrongdoing that may be found accountable for that, whether they are a senior officer or official," Pompeo told reporters before flying from Riyadh to Ankara where he met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

"They promised accountability," he said, adding that the Saudis were "determined to get to the bottom" of what happened.

Pompeo also would not be drawn on what the Saudi royals knew about Khashoggi’s whereabouts.

“They want to have the opportunity to complete this investigation in a thorough way,” he said, adding that he thought that was a “reasonable” request.

“Then we’ll all get to judge,” he said.

The secretary of state was in Turkey Wednesday morning after traveling to Saudi Arabia to meet with King Salman and the country's presumptive leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Khashoggi vanished after visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, and the sometimes lurid reports about his alleged death have dragged in the White House, thrown the Saudi establishment into crisis management mode and roiled Saudi Arabia's relations with Turkey, its regional rival.

Late Tuesday, Turkish officials revealed new information about members of the Saudi hit team they say traveled to Istanbul to kill the missing writer, providing NBC News with scans of the passports they allegedly used to enter the country. This followed revelations Monday that Saudi officials were discussing a plan to admit that Khashoggi was killed in the consulate but claim that the crown prince and top Saudi leadership weren’t aware or involved.

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Turkish officials say they fear Khashoggi was killed and dismembered inside the consulate. But Saudi officials have called the allegations "baseless," and responded furiously to what it termed "threats" of economic or political pressure after President Donald Trump warned of "severe punishment" over the weekend.

In Turkey, the investigation was being held up by bureaucratic procedure. Ankara was still waiting on a joint agreement to search the Saudi consul’s residence in Istanbul, according to Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu.

On Wednesday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said talks with Pompeo had been “beneficial and fruitful,” adding that officials were hoping to enter the Saudi consul’s residence on Wednesday.

State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said that Pompeo had welcomed Turkey's decision to return Andrew Brunson, an American pastor, in his meeting with Erdogan.

Pompeo left Ankara for Brussels around 12:30 p.m. local time (5:31 a.m. ET).

Cavusoglu on Tuesday said investigators would search the residence and consul’s cars. But this was later called off because Saudi officials were unable to participate, Reuters quoted Turkish police as saying.

A Saudi delegation was seen arriving at the consul's residence at around 4 p.m. local time (9 a.m. ET), according to The Associated Press. Turkish investigators then arrived some 50 minutes later.

Earlier this week, Turkish forensic teams searched the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, removing soil samples and bricks from the grounds, according to a Turkish individual familiar with the investigation. Erdogan told reporters Tuesday that the investigation was looking into many things "such as toxic materials and those materials being removed by painting over them."

Image: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Tuesday. Bandar Algaloud / EPA

Khashoggi, a longtime Saudi insider, last year left the kingdom amid a deepening crackdown on dissent and began writing pieces critical of the powerful crown prince for The Washington Post. His disappearance created a major diplomatic crisis for the kingdom, with mounting evidence that the Saudis were involved fueling a growing outcry from the international community.

Pompeo's conciliatory comments echoed those of Trump who criticized the global condemnation against the kingdom, and warned against a rush to judgment.

"Here we go again with, you know, you're guilty until proven innocent,” he said, before comparing the situation to allegations of sexual assault against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearing.

While longstanding Saudi-U.S. ties grew strained under the administration of President Barack Obama, Trump and Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and senior adviser, have embraced the king and crown prince as close and crucial partners in the administration's Middle East strategy. Trump went to Saudi Arabia in his first foreign trip as president.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., did not echo the president or Pompeo, however. On Tuesday he urged Trump to “sanction the hell out of Saudi Arabia.”

Speaking on "Fox and Friends," Graham blasted the crown prince claiming, without evidence, that he had Khashoggi “murdered.”

The scans of passports obtained by NBC News from Turkish officials show the photo-and-bio pages of seven of the 15 Saudis who arrived in Istanbul ahead of Khashoggi’s disappearance.

The names and ages match those who were included on a list of the 15 Saudi suspects published last week by the Turkish pro-government newspaper Sabah.

As Pompeo met with Turkish officials, the foreign ministers of the G7 — Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, U.K., U.S. — along with the high representative of the European Union said they remained “very troubled” by Khashoggi’s disappearance.

“Those bearing responsibility for his disappearance must be held to account,” the statement read.