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Malta PM calls emergency meeting as murder probe escalates

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Valletta (AFP)

Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat called an emergency cabinet meeting on Thursday night as a intensifying probe into the murder of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia threatened to further destabilise the government.

"The situation is very serious," Muscat told journalists as he entered the meeting.

As the meeting began, the police said that Muscat's chief of staff, Keith Schembri -- who had been arrested in connection with the case -- had been released.

The police said they "did not feel they needed to keep Schembri under arrest any longer".

The prime suspect in the murder, businessman Yorgen Fenech, had fingered Schembri as being the mastermind of Caruana Galizia's killing, police sources said, citing Fenech's interrogation.

The 2017 car bomb murder of Caruana Galizia, a popular journalist and blogger described as a "one-woman WikiLeaks" who exposed corruption in Malta, shocked the country and sparked protests for justice.

Muscat has been heavily criticised over the government's handling of the case, and on Tuesday vowed to resign if links were found between himself and the murder.

The political fallout of the investigation gathered momentum on Tuesday as Schembri resigned, as did tourism minister Konrad Mizzi, while economy minister Chris Cardona said he was "suspending himself".

Sources told the AFP that Muscat's cabinet may have been convened to discuss a presidential pardon requested by Fenech, whose arrest on his yacht last week seemed to be a major break in the investigation.

Fenech is seeking immunity for disclosing what he knows about the case.

On Thursday the tycoon filed a request in court to remove the chief investigator in the case, Keith Arnaud, alleging that he had been informing Schembri of details in the murder probe.

Fenech also alleged that Arnaud had a conflict of interest, having previously sought the chief of staff's help in finding a job for his wife.

Caruana Galizia, who exposed cronyism and sleaze within the country's political and business elite, had alleged that Schembri and Mizzi had been involved in corruption.

Leaked emails revealed in court appeared to show the both politicians stood to receive payments from a Dubai company called 17 Black, owned by Fenech.

The family of Caruana Galizia has called for Muscat to resign, saying he has "blood on his hands" for protecting Schembri and Mizzi.

Sources said Muscat could address the nation at the end of the cabinet meeting.

The European Parliament will send a mission to Malta, according to German Greens MEP Sven Giegold.

A new mission was warranted given "questions around the independence of the judicial system and severe allegations of corruption at the highest levels," Giegold, who went to the Mediterranean island on a similar assignment after Caruana Galizia's death, said in a statement.

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