Saudi Arabia's Istanbul consulate employees are giving testimony at the Turkish prosecutor's office, as part of the investigation into the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Turkish reports say Khashoggi was brutally murdered and dismembered inside the consulate by members of an assassination squad with alleged ties to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. (October 9, 2018)
Turkish reports say Khashoggi was brutally murdered and dismembered inside the consulate by members of an assassination squad with alleged ties to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. (October 9, 2018) (AFP)

Turkish prosecutors investigating the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi questioned Turkish employees of the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Friday, widening the hunt for evidence in a case that has put unprecedented international pressure on Saudi Arabia.

Khashoggi went missing more than two weeks ago after entering the consulate to obtain documents in relation to a forthcoming marriage. Turkish officials believe he was killed in the building on October 2.

Turkey's Anadolu news agency said 15 employees of the consulate were giving testimony at the Turkish prosecutor's office.

Consulate employees questioned as witnesses included accountants, technicians and a driver, Anadolu said. The investigation is being carried out by the prosecutor's terrorism and organised crime bureau, it added.

In an expanding quest for clues, police searched a forest on the outskirts of Istanbul and a city near the Sea of Marmara for Khashoggi's remains, two senior Turkish officials told Reuters, after tracking the routes of cars that left the Saudi consulate and the consul's residence on the day he vanished.

Turkish media have provided a steady stream of information suggesting Khashoggi was tortured and decapitated by a Saudi hit squad inside the consulate, although Turkey has yet to divulge details about the investigation.

But the controversy has already put the Saudi kingdom – for decades a key Western ally and bulwark against Iran in the Middle East – under unprecedented pressure amid reports it is scrambling to provide an explanation to take the heat off its rulers.

It is also a major crisis for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a favourite of the Trump administration who has portrayed himself as a modernising Arab reformer, but whose image and even position at home could now be gravely undermined.

Ankara meanwhile has denied that it has given audio recording to US officials from the investigation into Khashoggi's alleged murder.

US President Donald Trump says he wants to listen to the audio, but has acknowledged that Khashoggi was likely dead even as his fate remains unclear more than two weeks after he vanished.

"It certainly looks that way to me. It's very sad," Trump said when asked if he believed that Khashoggi is no longer alive.

On Friday, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Saudi Arabia's King Salman emphasised the importance of maintaining full cooperation between Ankara and Riyadh for investigating the disappearance of Khashoggi, Anadolu news agency reported.

In a telephone call, the leaders shared information on the independent investigations being conducted by Saudi Arabia andTurkey, it reported quoting presidential sources. 

Trump 'could' sanction Riyadh

Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump said he might consider sanctions against Saudi Arabia over the disappearance of Khashoggi, while emphasising the importance of the US-Saudi relationship.

Speaking to reporters in Scottsdale, Arizona, Trump said it was too early to say what the consequences for the incident might be. But he said the US Congress would be involved in determining the American response.

Asked whether sanctions were one of the measures he was considering, Trump said, "Could be, could be."

"We're going to find out who knew what when and where. And we'll figure it out," Trump added.

Trump said the US Congress will be involved in determining the US response, adding, "I might know a lot by Monday (about Khashoggi case).  I know a lot already. Waiting for two days to make everything right is not so bad."

Congress is controlled by Trump's fellow Republicans.

For many years Khashoggi was the consummate insider and close to many senior Saudi officials. 

But he had moved to the United States as he became an increasingly vocal critic of the current House of Saud. He was in Istanbul to do paperwork for his intended marriage to Hatice Cengiz, his Turkish fiancee.

Scouring a forest for answers

Istanbul's Belgrad forest became a target of the investigation after police focused on the vehicles which had left the consulate on the day Khashoggi disappeared, NTV channel reported on Friday. At least one vehicle is suspected to have gone to the forest.

The forest, a vast area and sufficiently remote for even locals to regularly get lost there, is nearly 15 kilometres (over nine miles) away from the Saudi consulate.

Investigators have already conducted two searches of the consulate and a nine-hour search of the consul's residence this week.

Saudi Consul General Mohammed al Otaibi was reported on Tuesday to have abruptly left Istanbul for Riyadh.

Turkish newspaper Sabah on Friday published new CCTV images of some of the alleged Saudi hit squad arriving in Istanbul and reported that two of the men landed in the city on October 1.

Previously, local media said the 15 men arrived in Turkey on the day that Khashoggi went missing via two private planes, which then returned to Riyadh via Egypt and Dubai.

'No tape given'

A key potential piece of evidence in the investigation is an alleged audiotape whose existence has been reported by Turkish media. They say it proves Khashoggi was tortured and then killed.

In the US, ABC News on Thursday quoted an unnamed Turkish official as saying US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had listened to the audio tape and was shown a transcript of the recording during his visit to Ankara.

But Pompeo said he had neither "seen" nor "heard" a tape and had not read a transcript during the visit to Ankara on Wednesday where he held talks with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.

Cavusoglu on Friday also denied the account of the tape's release and said it was "out of the question for Turkey to give any kind of audio tape to Pompeo or any other US official."

Cavusoglu did not reveal probe details but promised to share information in due course "in a transparent manner." He added that the outcome of the probe into Khashoggi's disappearance will be shared with the world. 

Cavusoglu was speaking during his visit to Albania's capital, Tirana.

France has suspended some political visits to Saudi Arabia over the case of missing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the country's president said.   

Speaking at a press conference in Brussels, Emmanuel Macron said a planned trip by Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire to the Saudi capital, Riyadh, to attend an economic conference has been cancelled.   

TRT World's Alaattin Kilic has more from outside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. 

'Prevent whitewash'

The New York Times reported on Thursday that Saudi leaders could blame General Ahmed al Assiri, a top intelligence official close to the crown prince.

Previously US media said Saudis were preparing a report that Khashoggi's death resulted from a botched interrogation, in a bid to limit the global backlash against Riyadh and damage to the crown prince.

As Washington seeks to avoid a long-term rupture with its ally Riyadh, Pompeo told Trump the Saudis should be given "a few more days to complete" an official probe.

But four prominent human rights and press freedom groups urged Turkey to demand a United Nations investigation to prevent a "whitewash" of the alleged crime.

The furore has also blown a huge hole in next week's Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh. It was meant to showcase Prince Mohammed's plans for reform but has now been hit by a stream of big-name cancellations including US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

US Federal Reserve officials are monitoring the case of Khashoggi and the possibility that any sanctions against Saudi Arabia could disrupt oil markets, Atlanta Fed President Raphael Bostic said on Friday.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies