A suspected killer of Saudi journalist Khashoggi arrested in France -sources


FILE PHOTO: The Committee to Protect Journalists and other press freedom activists hold a candlelight vigil in front of the Saudi Embassy to mark the anniversary of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul, Wednesday evening in Washington, U.S., October 2, 2019. REUTERS/Sarah Silbiger

PARIS (Reuters) - One of the suspected killers of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was arrested at Roissy airport near Paris on Tuesday as he was about to board a flight to Riyadh, sources said, a move welcomed by his fiancee and a rights group as a potential breakthrough.

A police source named the man as Khaled Aedh Al-Otaibi, a former Royal Guard of Saudi Arabia, who is mentioned in U.S and British sanctions lists as one of the killers, and was also on wanted lists in France.

A judicial source confirmed the arrest and said authorities were in the process of verifying his identity.

A Saudi official said those convicted of Khashoggi's killing were currently serving their sentences in Saudi Arabia and that reports of the arrest of someone implicated in the crime were wrong and a case of mistaken identity.

Khashoggi's fiancee Hatice Cengiz had earlier welcomed reports of the arrest, which came days after French President Emmanuel Macron held face-to-face talks in Saudi Arabia with de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, becoming the first major Western leader to visit the kingdom since Khashoggi's murder.

"France should try him for his crime, or extradite him to a country able and willing to genuinely investigate and prosecute him as well as the person who gave the order to murder Jamal," Cengiz said.

Khashoggi, a critic of Prince Mohammed, was last seen entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018. Turkish officials believe his body was dismembered and removed. His remains have not been found.

"BREAKTHROUGH"

Al-Oaibi was arrested on the basis of a warrant issued by Turkey in 2019, the police source told Reuters, adding that French prosecutors will now begin proceedings for a potential extradition there.

Al-Otaibi, who is mentioned on UK and U.S. sanctions lists as being involved in Khashoggi's murder, was also on a French wanted list.

"This could be a major breakthrough in the quest for justice for #JamalKhashoggi but more confirmation required," said Agnes Callamard, head of Amnesty International who previously led a United Nations investigation into Khashoggi's killing.

"If it is indeed the same person as that named by various sanctions lists and my report, then he was at the Consulate Residence at the time."

RTL radio was first to break news of Al-Otaibi's arrest, earlier on Tuesday.

A Saudi official told Reuters that there was a mistake.

"Media reports suggesting that a person who was implicated in the crime against Saudi citizen Jamal Khashoggi has been arrested in France are false," the Saudi official said.

"This is a case of mistaken identity. Those convicted of the crime are currently serving their sentences in Saudi Arabia."

Last year, a Saudi court jailed eight people for between seven and 20 years over the killing but none of the defendants was named. The trial was criticised by a U.N. official and human rights campaigners who said the masterminds of the murder remained free.

"ABHORRENT KILLING"

A report by Britain's Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation said Al-Otaibi, whom it mentions also goes by Altaibi, "as involved in the unlawful killing of Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul on 2 October 2018, as part of the 15 man team sent to Turkey by Saudi authorities."

Al-Otaibi, born in 1988, "was involved in the concealment of evidence at the Saudi General Consul's residence following the killing," that report said, while a U.S. department of Treasury report said: "The Saudi officials we are sanctioning were involved in the abhorrent killing of Jamal Khashoggi."

A U.S. intelligence report released in March said Prince Mohammed had approved the operation to kill or capture Khashoggi. The Saudi government has denied any involvement by the crown prince and rejected the report's findings.

France is one of Saudi Arabia's main arms suppliers, but it has faced pressure to review its sales because of the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels in Yemen, now one of the world's worst humanitarian crises.

Macron last week rejected accusations that he was legitimising the crown prince, saying the region's many crises could not be dealt with by ignoring Saudi Arabia.

The judicial source confirmed Al-Otaibi's was arrested on the basis of a Turkish arrest warrant. Turkish officials were also waiting for confirmation of his identity.

It was unclear how or when Al-Otaibi arrived in France.

The French Interior Ministry and the Saudi embassy in Paris declined to comment.

(Reporting by Alain Acco, Tassilo Hummel, Geert De Clercq, John Irish, Christian Lowe, Tangi Salaun, Ghaida Ghantous; Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Angus MacSwan, Nick Macfie, William Maclean)

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