A Saudi public prosecutor has revealed on state television that a primary investigation into high-profile journalist Jamal Khashoggi's disappearance has confirmed he is dead.
"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 public prosecutor said.
Eighteen nationals have reportedly been arrested in connection with the suspected murder and two of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's top aides — intelligence official Ahmad al-Assiri and royal court media advisor Saud al-Qahtani — have been sacked.
Khashoggi's disappearance has sparked global outrage as the mystery surrounding it deepens, reports news.com.au.
But there's one person believed to be at the centre of the scandal who is yet to make any public mention of it: Crown Prince bin Salman.
Turkish reports say Khashoggi, who had written columns critical of the Saudi government for The Washington Post over the past year while he lived in self-imposed exile in the United States, was killed and dismembered inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
Khashoggi has not been seen since he entered the consulate on October 2. It's believed members of an assassination squad with ties to Saudi's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman are responsible for his death. The Saudis have dismissed those reports as baseless but have yet to explain what happened to the writer.
In Istanbul, a leaked surveillance photo showed a man who has been a member of the Crown Prince's entourage during trips abroad walking into the Saudi Consulate just before Khashoggi vanished there — timing that drew the kingdom's heir-apparent closer to the columnist's apparent demise.
Turkish officials say Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb flew into Istanbul on a private jet along with an "autopsy expert" on October 2 and left that night.
A Turkish newspaper has also reported that the contents of Khashoggi's Apple Watch recorded his final brutal moments.
According to The Sabah newspaper, authorities recovered the audio from the journalist's iPhone and his iCloud account, which were synched to his watch.
It's believed he gave his phone to his fiancee, Hatice Cengiz before entering the consulate to arrange paperwork for his marriage.
The tape, if it's authentic, supposedly reveals Khashoggi had his fingers cut off. According to local media, his panicked dying screams could be heard before he was "injected with an unknown drug" and went off the grid.
Despite intense scrutiny on Prince bin Salman, who is suspected of being the mastermind behind the possible killing, he is yet to publicly respond to the accusations. But there have been top secret talks behind close doors.
A US official said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo this week warned the Saudi crown prince that his credibility as a future leader was at stake. The prince is next in line for the throne held by his elderly father King Salman.
Pompeo said the Saudis should be given a few more days to finish and make public a credible investigation before the US decides "how or if" to respond but had reportedly also been blunt about the need to wrap the probe up quickly.
"They made clear to me that they too understand the serious nature of the disappearance of Mr Khashoggi," he said.
"They also assured me that they will conduct a complete, thorough investigation of all of the facts surrounding Mr Khashoggi and that they will do so in a timely fashion."
Mr Pompeo said that whatever response the administration might decide on would take into account the importance of the longstanding US-Saudi partnership. He said, "They're an important strategic ally of the US, and we need to be mindful of that."
US President Donald Trump acknowledged Thursday it "certainly looks" as though the missing journalist was dead and vowed "very severe" consequences if the Saudis are found to have murdered him.
"It's bad, bad stuff," he said.
"But we'll see what happens."
After speaking with King Salman over the phone on Monday, Mr Trump said the political dictator denied knowledge of what happened to Khashoggi.
"Maybe these could have been rogue killers — who knows?" Mr Trump said.
His warning came after the administration toughened its response and announced that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin had pulled out of a major upcoming Saudi investment conference.
The messaging underscored the administration's concern about the effect the case could have on relations with a close and valuable strategic partner. Increasingly upset US politicians have condemned the Saudis and questioned the seriousness with which Mr Trump and his top aides are treating the matter, while the president has emphasised the billions of dollars in weapons the Saudis purchase from the US.
'THIS GUY IS A WRECKING BALL'
According to US media reports, the kingdom is considering an admission that Khashoggi died after an interrogation that went wrong during an intended abduction.
CNN reports Saudi Arabia might release the information in a written report, but that the details were subject to change. Citing two unnamed sources, the cable news network alleged the report would likely conclude that the operation was carried out without clearance and that those involved will be held responsible.
US Vice President Mike Pence said earlier in Colorado that "the world deserves answers" about what happened to Khashoggi, "and those who are responsible need to be held to account."
Senator Lindsey Graham, one of the conservative kingdom's most vocal defenders in Congress and a close ally of Mr Trump, said the Crown Prince has "got to go".
Senator Graham vowed never to return to the country as long as the young leader remains in power.
"This guy is a wrecking ball. He had this guy murdered in a consulate in Turkey, and to expect me to ignore it — I feel used and abused," he told Fox & Friends.
He said Prince bin Salman was "toxic" and should "never be a world leader on the world stage".
THE RISE AND FALL OF MOHAMMED BIN SALMAN
When Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman came to power in 2015, his rise was seen as a sign of the shifting sands in Saudi Arabia.
The 33-year-old leader pushed ambitious plans to transform the country into a modern state through a series of reforms that would secure its economic future. The ultraconservative kingdom lifted its driving ban on women in June this year.
Prince bin Salman boasted a "Vision 2030" plan to ease social controls in the kingdom and embrace a more open and tolerant interpretation of Islam.
He was the young reformer set on bringing the Middle Eastern kingdom into the 21st century and opening it up to the world, with western diplomats hailing him as a breath of fresh air in the regressive nation.
This was widely regarded as a PR exercise designed to make the country more palatable to the West. But it worked.
Despite his country's atrocious human rights record, Prince bin Salman was received in the US like a celebrity in April.
magazine featured him on its cover. He had televised interviews with Western media outlets, with
hailing him as a "revolutionary" who was "emancipating women". He dined with Morgan Freeman, director James Cameron and The Rock, who posted on Instagram that it was a "pleasure" meeting him and a "fascinating experience".
But his image has been severely tarnished on multiple occasions — he arrested at least seven high-profile women's activists in May, detained Lebanon leader Saad Hariri and allegedly forced him to resign, and threatened to arrest anyone who dared question his reforms.
Late last year, he was behind a Game of Thrones-style purge billed as an "anti-corruption" campaign, detaining dozens of members of Saudi Arabia's political and business elite accused of corruption.
Under his watch, Saudi Arabia intervened in the civil war in neighbouring Yemen, entered a massive diplomatic spat with Canada, and isolated Qatar by closing the smaller country's only land border.
But it was the mysterious disappearance of one of his most prominent critics, Khashoggi, that has marked a major shift in the public perception of Prince bin Salman in the West.
THE TRUTH COSTS
In the meantime, international pressure continues to mount against Prince bin Salman and the Saudis, with France, Germany, the UK and the US pushing for answers.
Representatives from more than a dozen western news outlets, including the New York Times, The Financial Times, Bloomberg and The Economist, have removed their media sponsorship and withdrawn from an upcoming international conference to be hosted by the prince, according to Axios.
Top technology executives have started to pull away from the Neom project advisory board, an ambitious $500 billion project spruiked by the kingdom as a sustainable futuristic megacity.
Apple's chief design officer Jony Ive, former US secretary of energy Ernest Moriz, Footpath Labs' Dan Doctoroff, and former vice president of the European Commission Neelie Kroes have all suspended their involvement in the project.
And Hollywood agency Endeavour Content is pulling out of a $400 million investment deal in the country, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
Earlier this week, prominent Saudi journalist Turki Aldakhil warned the US it would "stab its own economy to death" if it retaliated with sanctions.
In a blistering opinion piece, Aldakhil warned such actions would cause oil prices to rise as high as $200 a barrel, drive the Middle East towards Iran and lead Riyadh to permit a Russian military base in the city of Tabuk.
"If US sanctions are imposed on Saudi Arabia, we will be facing an economic disaster that would rock the entire world," Aldakhil wrote for the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya news channel.
"If the price of oil reaching $80 angered President Trump, no one should rule out the price jumping to $100, or $200, or even double that figure."