US President Donald Trump says it "certainly looks" as though Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi is dead, and warns of "very severe" consequences if the Saudis are found to have murdered him.

President Donald Trump's fresh remarks signal a hardening of tone from the US, which has been reluctant to blame ally Saudi Arabia.
President Donald Trump's fresh remarks signal a hardening of tone from the US, which has been reluctant to blame ally Saudi Arabia. (AP)

US President Donald Trump said on Thursday he now believes journalist Jamal Khashoggi is dead and warned of "very severe" consequences should Saudi Arabia be proven responsible.

"It certainly looks that way to me," Trump told journalists when asked if he believed that Khashoggi, who disappeared more than two weeks ago, is no longer alive.

TRT World's Lionel Donovan reports.

Asked about the potential US response to Saudi Arabia, which is accused of murdering the Washington Post columnist and critic of the Saudi government, Trump said: "It will have to be very severe. It's bad, bad stuff."

This marked a hardening of tone from the Trump administration, which has been reluctant to blame ally Saudi Arabia, despite reports that Saudi agents allegedly killed and dismembered Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul more than two weeks ago.

A former Saudi insider, Khashoggi had become a critic of powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the point man in ever-tightening military and commercial relations between the Muslim petro-state and the Trump administration.

Trump has previously speculated without providing evidence that "rogue killers" could be responsible for murdering Khashoggi. 

TRT World's Alaatin Kilic reports from outside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Saudis get 'few more days' on probe

Just hours earlier US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he had told Trump the Saudis should be given "a few more days to complete" an investigation.

Only then, Pompeo said, "we can make decisions how or if the United States should respond."

Trump met for less than an hour with Pompeo, who gave the president an update on his talks this week with Saudi and Turkish officials about Khashoggi who remains missing after entering the Saudi consulate on October 2.

Referring to the Saudis, Pompeo said he told Trump that "we ought to give them a few more days to complete" their investigation in order to get a full understanding of what happened "at which point we can make decisions about how – or if – the US should respond to the incident surrounding Mr Khashoggi."

"I think it's important for us all to remember, too,  we have a long, since 1932, a long, strategic relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia," Pompeo told reporters after meeting with Trump, also calling Saudi Arabia "an important counter-terrorism partner."

Turkish officials have reportedly said they believe Saudi journalist Khashoggi – a US resident – was murdered at the consulate and his body chopped up and removed.

Riyadh to blame intelligence official?

The rulers of Saudi Arabia are considering blaming a top intelligence official for the killing of Khashoggi, The New York Times reported on Thursday citing three people with knowledge of the Saudi plans.

The newspaper said the Saudi rulers are considering to blame General Ahmed al Assiri, a top intelligence official, for the killing.

The three people cited by the Times said that even though the investigation into Khashoggi's disappearance is under way, the Saudis are indicating that General Assiri is the culprit and have already briefed people close to the White House and forwarded the name of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's close aide.

Shortly after the Trump-Pompeo meeting, US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced he would not be attending a high-profile business conference in Saudi Arabia.

Mnuchin announced, "We have decided I will not be participating in the Future Investment Initiative summit in Saudi Arabia." 

The Saudis had hoped to use the forum, billed as "Davos in the Desert" to boost their global image, but a number of European finance ministers and many top business executives have pulled out as international pressure on Riyadh has intensified over Khashoggi.

Turkish officials search consulate

Turkish investigators searched the Saudi consulate and consular vehicles in Istanbul early on Thursday, a Reuters witness said. They used bright lights to illuminate the garden. Earlier, they spent nearly nine hours in the Saudi consul's residence along with Saudi investigators.

The Turkish search, which used a drone, included the roof and garage.

Khashoggi had gone to the consulate seeking documents for his planned upcoming marriage and has not been seen since. Saudi Arabia has denied involvement in the disappearance.

The incident has caused a global outcry but also poses a dilemma for the United States and other Western nations, which have lucrative business dealings with the authoritarian kingdom and count on it as a leading Middle East ally and opponent of their common enemy Iran.

Saudi Arabia also wields significant influence as the world's top oil exporter.

How Western allies deal with Riyadh will hinge on the extent to which they believe responsibility for Khashoggi's disappearance lies with Crown Prince Mohammed and the Saudi authorities.

Trump has shown no willingness to mete out harsh punishment to Saudi Arabia. He said on Wednesday he did not want to abandon Saudi Arabia and needed to see evidence of any role by Riyadh.

Trump, who has forged closer ties with Saudi Arabia and the 33-year-old prince in an effort to counter Iranian influence in the Middle East, has speculated without providing evidence that "rogue killers" could be responsible.

US lawmakers seek sanctions against Riyadh 

More than 40 lawmakers on Thursday urged Trump to impose sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act on those responsible for Khashoggi's alleged murder. 

"If your immediate investigation and determination are consistent with ongoing media reports about this outrageous action, we urge strong, comprehensive sanctions," members of the House of Representatives said in a letter, which also called for an end to US support for Saudi Arabian military action in Yemen.

Turkey urged to seek UN help 

Meanwhile, four prominent Western rights groups – Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders – urged Turkey to ask the United Nations to investigate the disappearance of Khashoggi.

"UN involvement is the best guarantee against a Saudi whitewash or attempts by other governments to sweep the issue under the carpet to preserve lucrative business ties with Riyadh," said Robert Mahoney, deputy executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies