'No smoking gun,' 'We are all Mohammed bin Salman,' say crown prince supporters

FILE PHOTO: Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a graduation ceremony for the 95th batch of cadets from the King Faisal Air Academy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia December 23, 2018. Picture taken December 23, 2018. Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout via REUTERS

DUBAI (Reuters) - "No smoking gun," pro-government Saudi commentators concluded in response to a U.S. intelligence assessment that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had approved the operation to capture or kill journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

A few minutes after the report was released, many Saudis flooded Twitter with the hashtag saying, "We are all Mohammed bin Salman."

Rights groups called for tough action.

Saudi Arabia, one of Washington's closest Arab allies, officially dismissed what it called the "negative, false and unacceptable assessment in the report pertaining to the kingdom's leadership", according to a statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The ministry added that those responsible for the "heinous murder" had been tried in Saudi courts and that "justice was served."

Riyadh has denied any involvement by the crown prince, also known as MbS.

Commentators close to the government took to social media to defend the crown prince, King Salman's son and de facto ruler of the kingdom.

Ali Shihabi, former head of the Arabia Foundation in Washington which regularly supports Saudi policy, said there was nothing in the report that had not been said before and "absolutely no smoking gun."

"Extraordinary that all this hype is made about this document... This thin 'report' is actually evidence that no hard proof exists against MBS," Shihabi said on Twitter.

Abdulrahman al-Rashed, a Saudi columnist who runs a government-controlled media group said "... and it is stated in the report: It is not certain that the accused team was on a journey to get rid of Khashoggi."

He too said there was "no smoking gun."

Saudi Arabia's biggest newspapers and television channels did not cover the release of the report, instead showing sports events and other unrelated programming. In its evening bulletin, Saudi-owned Al Arabiya referred to it briefly, focusing on what it said was the absence of concrete evidence.

"The nation is fortified," wrote the conservative and semi-official Okaz newspaper on the front page of its weekend edition, with a large picture of the crown prince smiling.

"The Biden administration will soon realize that the complex issues of the region will not find a solution, except through a new and exceptional agreement with its partners in the region that includes holding Tehran accountable," Okaz said.

Activists and rights groups, however, clamored for justice and sanctions against Saudi Arabia and MbS on social media.

"Thank you, Joe Biden for transparency about Jamal Khashoggi's murder. Now we need sanctions on the Saudi prince responsible," Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), a U.S.-based human rights group founded by Khashoggi, said in a statement.

An "MbS-Khashoggi-killer" hashtag started trending after the release of the report.

Speaking after the report's release, Yahya Assiri, a prominent Saudi dissident in exile who serves as the secretary general of a recently formed opposition group, the National Assembly Party, added his party's support for the report's findings but called for more stringent measures against MbS and those responsible.

"We renew our demands that those responsible must appear before an honest and fair international tribunal," he said.

Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi's fiancee, tweeted: "#justiceforjamal."

(Reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi, Marwa Rashad and Raya Jalabi; Editing by Michael Georgy and Howard Goller)

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