UK, French, Dutch ministers shun Saudi conference over Khashoggi

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Paris (AFP)

Senior ministers from Britain, France and the Netherlands on Thursday pulled out of a major investment conference in Saudi Arabia, expressing deep concern over the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The ministers joined a slew of corporate bigwigs who are now shunning next week's Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh, touted as a showcase for the economic reforms of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has said he will decide later on Thursday whether to attend, with President Donald Trump on the defensive as world opinion rounds on America's Saudi allies.

Like the United States, Britain and France are leading suppliers of arms to the kingdom, but yanked top-level representation at the October 23-25 conference, dubbed "Davos in the Desert".

British International Trade Secretary Liam Fox said "the time is not right" to go to Riyadh.

Khashoggi, who was living in self-imposed exile in the United States where he contributed to the Washington Post, vanished after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2.

Unnamed Turkish officials cited in the Turkish media say he was killed and dismembered inside the consulate by a hit squad which arrived from Riyadh -- claims denied by the Saudi government.

"The UK remains very concerned about Jamal Khashoggi's disappearance," a British government spokesperson said in a statement, insisting that the Saudis abide by their pledge to carry out a full and transparent investigation.

"Those bearing responsibility for his disappearance must be held to account."

- 'Not appropriate' -

French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire also said he would not be attending the Saudi conference, saying: "The current circumstances do not allow me to go to Riyadh" and describing Khashoggi's disappearance as a "very serious" matter.

And President Emmanuel Macron's office concurred, saying "pending the outcome of the investigation, it was not appropriate for France to be represented at this level".

The Netherlands also said Finance Minister Wopke Hoekstra was no longer going to the conference, and that it was also cancelling a planned trade mission to Saudi in December.

Working with the EU and other partners, the Dutch government would "look at ways international concerns about Khashoggi could be addressed", Foreign Minister Stef Blok said.

International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde already pulled out of the conference this week along with several Western business leaders and media groups.