Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told a top aide in 2017 that he would use "a bullet" on Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist who was murdered last October, if the latter did not return to the Kingdom and end his criticism of the Saudi government, a New York Times report said.
The conversation, intercepted by American intelligence agencies, is the most detailed evidence to date that the Crown Prince considered killing Khashoggi, a columnist for The Washington post, long before a team of Saudi operatives murdered him inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018, and dismembered his body using a bone saw, the report said on Thursday.
According to informed officials, the conversation that took place between Prince Mohammed and the aide, Turki Aldakhil in September 2017, has been transcribed and analysed as part of an effort by intelligence agencies to find proof of who was responsible for Khashoggi's death.
The National Security Agency (NSA) and other American intelligence agencies are now sifting through years of the Crown Prince's voice and text communications that the NSA routinely intercepted and stored, The New York Times quoted the officials as saying.
Also in September 2017, Khashoggi began writing opinion columns for The Washington Post, and top Saudi officials discussed ways to lure him back to the country, the officials said.
In the conversation, Prince Mohammed said that if Khashoggi could not be enticed back to Saudi Arabia, then he should be returned by force.
If neither of those methods worked, the Crown Prince said, then he would go after the slain journalist "with a bullet".
At the time of the conversation, Prince Mohammed was in the midst of consolidating power in the Kingdom, The New York Times said.
Just months earlier, his father, King Salman, elevated him to second in line to the throne.
Later that year, Prince Mohammed ordered hundreds of influential businessmen and Saudi royals, some who had been considered contenders to the throne, locked up at the Ritz Carlton hotel in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, where they were interrogated.
Days before the conversation with Aldakhil, according to the informed officials, Prince Mohammed complained to another aide, Saud al-Qahtani, that Khashoggi had grown too influential.
The Crown Prince Mohammed said that Khashoggi's articles and Twitter posts were tarnishing the his image as a forward-thinking reformer.
Responding to the report, Aldakhil said on Thursday night: "These allegations are categorically false. They appear to be a continuation of various efforts by different parties to connect His Royal Highness Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to this horrific crime. These efforts will prove futile."
A Saudi official also issued a statement saying: "We again deny any involvement on the part of the Crown Prince in the heinous murder of Jamal Khashoggi."
Meanwhile, UN rapporteur Agnes Callamard presented preliminary findings on Thursday saying that Khashoggi's murder was the consequence of a plan hatched by officials of the Kingdom.
"Evidence collected during my mission to Turkey shows prime facie case that Khashoggi was the victim of a brutal and premeditated killing, planned and perpetrated by officials of the State of Saudi Arabia," Callamard said.
Callamard, who travelled to Turkey with a team that included a serious-crime investigator and a forensics expert, said she found that Saudi Arabia was hindering and undermining Turkish authorities' efforts to elucidate the circumstances of the journalist's death.
She said her team will continue their investigation in the upcoming weeks and she urged anyone with any information about the assassination to come forward.
The team's final report will be presented in June to the UN Human Rights Council.
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