WASHINGTON, Nov 16 (Reuters) - The CIA has concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, the Washington Post reported on Friday, a finding that contradicts Saudi government assertions that he was not involved.
The Post said U.S. officials have expressed high confidence in the CIA assessment, which is the most definitive to date linking Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler to the killing and complicates President Donald Trump's efforts to preserve U.S. ties with one of the closest American allies in the region.
Reuters was not immediately able to verify the accuracy of the report, but a source familiar with U.S. intelligence assessments told Reuters U.S. government experts assess with confidence that the crown prince ordered the operation that led to Khashoggi's death.
The White House declined to comment on the Post report, saying it was an intelligence matter. The State Department also declined to comment.
Khashoggi, a contributing columnist for the Washington Post, was killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 when he went there to pick up documents he needed for his planned marriage to a Turkish woman.
Khashoggi, a critic of the Saudi government, had resisted pressure from Riyadh for him to return home. Saudi officials have said a team of 15 Saudi nationals were sent to confront Khashoggi at the consulate and that he was accidentally killed in a chokehold by men who were trying to force him to return to the kingdom.
Turkish officials have said the killing was intentional and have been pressuring Saudi Arabia to extradite those responsible to stand trial. An adviser to Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday accused Saudi Arabia of trying to cover up the murder.
His remarks came after Saudi Arabia's public prosecutor said he was seeking the death penalty for five suspects charged in Khashoggi's killing. The Saudi prosecutor, Shalaan al-Shalaan, told reporters the Saudi crown prince knew nothing of the operation, in which Khashoggi's body was dismembered and removed from the consulate.
The Post, citing people familiar with the matter, said the CIA reached its conclusions after examining multiple sources of intelligence, including a phone call that the prince's brother, Khalid bin Salman, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, had with Khashoggi.
Khalid told Khashoggi he should go to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to retrieve the documents and gave him assurances that it would be safe to do so, the Post said.
The newspaper, citing people familiar with the call, said it was not clear if Khalid knew Khashoggi would be killed but that he made the call at his brother's direction.
Ambassador Khalid bin Salman said in a Twitter posted on Friday the last contact he had with Khashoggi was via text on Oct. 26, 2017, nearly a year before the journalist's death.
"I never talked to him by phone and certainly never suggested he go to Turkey for any reason. I ask the US government to release any information regarding this claim," he said in his Twitter message.
(Reporting by David Alexander, Mark Hosenball, Jeff Mason; Editing by Tim Ahmann)