Saudi Arabia on Friday night admitted that the missing journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed in its Istanbul consulate, according to state media.
“The discussions between Jamal Khashoggi and those he met at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul… devolved into a fistfight, leading to his death,” the Saudi Press Agency said, citing the public prosecutor.
Details emerged in a flurry of statements from state-run media, which announced a string of arrests, an overhaul of the country’s security apparatus and the dismissal of four senior figures.
In reaction however, Antonio Guterres, UN secretary-general, said he is “deeply troubled” by the admission, said a spokesman.
The UN chief called for a “prompt, thorough, transparent” probe into the circumstances of Khashoggi’s death and urged full accountability for those who were involved.
So far, 18 Saudi nationals have been arrested and deputy intelligence chief Ahmad al-Assiri and Saud al-Qahtani, a senior aide to Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince, had been dismissed, state TV reported.
The Saudi government has been under days of intense pressure to explain what happened to the dissident journalist after he entered the consulate more than two weeks ago.
Turkish government sources alleged the Washington Post columnist was tortured, murdered and his body dismembered by a Saudi hit squad flown in from Riyadh.
However, reports circulated for days that the kingdom was preparing to suggest it was an interrogation or rendition effort that spiralled out of control – an explanation that would insulate the crown prince from responsibility for the journalist’s death.
And the release of a statement suggesting a fight was met with immediate incredulity by critics of Saudi Arabia.
Lindsey Graham, an American senator, wrote on Twitter: “To say that I am sceptical of the new Saudi narrative about Mr Khashoggi is an understatement.”
However Donald Trump said that Saudi Arabia’s explanation for how journalist Jamal Khashoggi died at its consulate in Istanbul was credible.
Speaking to reporters, he said Saudi Arabia’s announcement on the circumstances of Khashoggi’s death was a “good first step”.
One of the dismissed figures, Al-Assiri was reputedly one of the crown prince’s favourite generals. According to reports in Saudi Arabia, he at some point attended Sandhurst military academy in the UK. He gained a high profile as a spokesman for the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen.
As well as the dismissal of key security officials, on Friday night King Salman ordered the restructuring of the command of the general intelligence agency under the supervision of the crown prince.
The official Saudi press agency added the order also included updating regulations, determining the agency’s powers, and evaluating its methods and procedures.
The moves suggest an effort to limit damage the diplomatic fall-out.
The alleged killing has sent shockwaves through the world, dwarfing outrage over the kingdom’s recent arrest of women’s rights activists and its involvement in the deaths of civilians in the war in Yemen.
In the past few days, foreign diplomats have suspended scheduled visits to the kingdom and more than two dozen senior officials and executives from the US and Europe have cancelled plans to attend the Future Investment Initiative, dubbed the “Davos of the Desert”.
The announcement that Khashoggi was killed at the consulate will heap more pressure on Britain to act against Saudi Arabia.
Jeremy Hunt had earlier warned there would be “consequences” for the UK’s relationship with Saudi Arabia if it was found the journalist was murdered.
The Foreign Secretary said the Government remained “extremely concerned” about his fate after he went missing when he visited the consulate more than two weeks ago to get paperwork so he could marry.
His warning came as former MI6 chief Sir John Sawers said “all the evidence” suggested that Mr Khashoggi had been murdered on the orders of someone close to the crown prince.