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Saudi government preparing to say Khashoggi was killed during interrogation gone wrong

Last Updated Oct 15, 2018 10:17 PM EDT

The Saudi government is preparing to say that the death of prominent journalist Jamal Khashoggi was the result of an interrogation by Saudi operatives that went wrong, two sources close to the Saudi kingdom tell CBS News. Khashoggi vanished after entering a Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, igniting a global firestorm over the circumstances of his disappearance.

Saudi officials are expected to claim that the mission was initiated to interrogate Khashoggi, a frequent critic of the government, not to kill him. A third source, also close to the Saudi government, said the Saudis will assert that the operation was planned and executed by a general who is close to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS. They will also say that MBS approved the plan to interrogate Khashoggi.

But the crown prince did not authorize Khashoggi's murder, according to the source, and the Saudi statement will make it clear that the general exceeded his authority and that he will be held accountable. 

The source says that the statement will come out in the form of a joint Turkish-Saudi conclusion.

The admission of culpability would mark a departure from the kingdom's repeated insistence that it had no knowledge of what happened to Khashoggi, who was picking up paperwork needed to marry his fiancée. CNN first reported that the Saudis were planning to admit Khashoggi died in the consulate.

As recently as Monday morning, Saudi leaders were still not admitting any wrongdoing. President Trump tweeted Monday morning that he had spoken by phone with King Salman of Saudi Arabia and that the king "denies any knowledge of whatever may have happened" to Khashoggi. Speaking to reporters later in the morning, Mr. Trump suggested Khashoggi may have been murdered by "rogue killers" operating outside the authority of the Saudi government.

The Saudis also initially claimed Khashoggi left the consulate on his own accord. Surveillance footage from cameras surrounding the consulate showed Khashoggi entering the complex but did not show him leaving.

The Turkish government believes Khashoggi was killed and dismembered inside the consulate, and his body removed in suitcases or boxes. Turkish officials have also said they have audio and video recordings of Khashoggi's interrogation.

Turkish officials have said that two private planes carrying 15 Saudi operatives flew to Turkey and the men were seen arriving at the consulate shortly before Khashoggi entered the compound. Surveillance footage showed two vehicles leaving several hours after Khashoggi arrived. The New York Times reported that a top forensic and autopsy expert was among those who traveled to Turkey.

On Monday, a team of Saudi and Turkish investigators entered the consulate in Istanbul to inspect the diplomatic compound. Saudi King Salman and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke by phone on Sunday and agreed to cooperate in the investigation.

This week, Ambassador James Jeffrey, the Special Representative for Syrian Engagement, is heading to the region, with stops in both Saudi Arabia and Turkey, to discuss Syria. 

International pressure on the Saudi government has been steadily increasing since Khashoggi's disappearance. Lawmakers in Washington have warned of sanctions against the Saudi leadership and said arms deals with the kingdom could be terminated. Saudi Arabia is the largest purchaser of U.S. weapons, accounting for nearly one-fifth of U.S. global arms sales.

Khashoggi had been one of the most prominent critics of the Saudi government under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He left the country last year and was living in self-imposed exile in Washington, where he used his platform as a contributor to the Washington Post to question the Crown Prince's stated commitment to reforms.

Chris Isham contributed to this report.