Riyadh, Oct 16 (AFP) Top US diplomat Mike Pompeo said Tuesday that Saudi leaders supported a “thorough” probe into the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi on an outwardly friendly visit to the kingdom whose reputation has taken a beating.

President Donald Trump dispatched his secretary of state on the urgent mission to Riyadh to defuse a crisis over Khashoggi, an insider turned critic of the conservative monarchy who was last seen on October 2 when he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to sort out marriage paperwork.

Turkish officials say that Khashoggi, who lived in exile in suburban Washington, was killed inside the consulate.

The Turkish foreign ministry announced that Pompeo, who said little in Riyadh about any progress he may be making, would head on to Ankara on Wednesday for talks.

Pompeo met in Riyadh with the top leadership of Saudi Arabia including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who not long ago basked in international praise for his domestic reforms but whose reputation has soured over his mounting crackdown on dissent.

Meeting King Salman, Pompeo “thanked the king for his commitment to supporting a thorough, transparent and timely investigation of Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.

Saudi Arabia has denied killing Khashoggi. Trump has mused aloud that “rogue killers” could have been to blame.

While the message behind closed doors may have taken a different tone, Pompeo was full of smiles and exchanged pleasantries with leaders of the longstanding ally, with no ostensible sense of crisis.

“We are strong and old allies. We face our challenges together,” the crown prince told Pompeo in the palace decked out with imposing chandeliers and gold-plated furniture, to which Pompeo said, “Absolutely,” after thanking the Saudis for allowing him to visit.

Pompeo was set to meet at greater length with the 33-year-old crown prince over a dinner accompanied by top aides.

Saudi Arabia has been closely linked to the United States for more than a half century as a critical oil supplier, with relations warming under Trump as the US administration aggressively confronts the kingdom’s regional rival Iran.

But the Saudis have faced intense criticism over the Khashoggi incident, which comes just after US senators nearly succeeded in cutting off support for Riyadh’s air campaign against rebels in Yemen, which a UN report says has killed thousands of civilians.

There have also been sharp words targeting Mohammed bin Salman, known by his initials MBS, from US senators on both the Republican and Democrat sides, amid calls for Congress to halt US arms sales to the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia warned before Pompeo’s visit that the leading oil exporter can retaliate, with an official quoted in state media warning that the kingdom “plays an effective and vital role in the world economy” and can “respond to any action with a bigger one”.

Turkish authorities have stepped up their investigation into Khashoggi’s disappearance, with police searching the Saudi consulate for eight hours into Tuesday morning, taking a sample of the garden soil.

On Tuesday, Turkish media reported that Saudi Arabia’s consul to Istanbul, Mohammed al-Otaibi, had returned to Riyadh as Turkish authorities prepare to search his residence.

The UN human rights chief called Tuesday for the lifting of the immunity of officials who might be involved in Khashoggi’s disappearance.

Due to the seriousness of the case “I believe the inviolability or immunity of the relevant premises and officials… should be waived immediately,” Michelle Bachelet said in a statement.

CNN reported on Monday that Saudi Arabia was considering admitting that Khashoggi had died after an interrogation that went wrong during an intended abduction.

The Wall Street Journal, also quoting unnamed sources, said the kingdom was weighing whether to say that rogue operatives killed Khashoggi by mistake.

The controversy has not only troubled Saudi’s traditional Western allies, which are key arms suppliers to the kingdom, but undermined efforts by Mohammed bin Salman to present himself as a modernising ruler.

An investment conference seen as a platform for the crown prince and dubbed the “Davos in the Desert”, scheduled to take place in Riyadh next week, has been hit by a string of prominent cancellations.

JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, Ford chairman Bill Ford and Larry Fink, the head of investment giant BlackRock, were among the latest business barons to cancel plans to attend.

US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said he still plans to attend but would take “into account” any new information.

The controversy also threw into doubt a USD 400 million deal the Saudi Public Investment Fund negotiated with Hollywood’s most powerful talent agency as part of the crown prince’s drive for a foothold in the entertainment industry.

Britain, France and Germany also released a rare joint statement saying they were treating Khashoggi’s disappearance “with the utmost seriousness” and calling for a “credible investigation”. (AFP) ZH ZH

This is published unedited from the PTI feed.