Malta PM holds emergency talks as pressure to quit mounts

Valletta (AFP) –


Malta's prime minister convened an emergency meeting Sunday as pressure mounted for him to quit over his handling of the murder probe of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.

The meeting came a day after the main suspect in the 2017 car bomb killing, tycoon Yorgen Fenech, was charged with complicity in the murder and had his assets frozen by a court.

The investigation has rocked the southern Mediterranean island and reached the highest rungs of politics.

Critics have accused Labour premier Joseph Muscat, 45, of protecting those involved in Caruana Galizia's murder.

The scandal has already claimed the scalps of Muscat's top aide Keith Schembri and two ministers.

Police sources said Fenech identified Schembri as the "real mastermind" behind the killing.

Muscat's departure date was likely to be the focus of Sunday's emergency meeting of ministers and MPs, a senior Labour source told AFP.

"The prime minister has said from the outset that he will leave no stone unturned to solve this despicable murder under his watch and he delivered exactly that with the arraignment of someone who is believed to have commissioned the murder," the source said.

"His exit has been on the cards for a while and he feels that now is the best time to bow out and allow fresh blood to take up on the extremely positive results delivered by Joseph Muscat in the six years at the helm."

On Saturday, party insiders told AFP that Muscat would step down at the latest on January 18 when the Labour Party is set to hold an election for his successor.

Caruana Galizia's family and protesters have taken to the streets and called for Muscat to resign.

However, he repeatedly insisted he would remain in power until the case was "closed".

- 'One-woman Wikileaks' -

Caruana Galizia, a popular journalist and blogger described as a "one-woman WikiLeaks", exposed cronyism and sleaze within the country's political and business elite.

She accused Schembri of corruption along with tourism minister Konrad Mizzi and economy minister Chris Cardona, all three of whom stepped down last week.

Leaked emails revealed in court indicated that both Schembri and Mizzi stood to receive payments from a Dubai company called 17 Black, owned by Fenech.

The murder probe gained momentum following last week's arrest of the tycoon whose business interests span the energy, casinos and tourism sectors.

His detention came after an alleged middleman in the murder, taxi driver Melvin Theuma, was offered a pardon to identify others who were involved.

Schembri, Muscat's former chief of staff, was arrested Tuesday but his release on Thursday sparked accusations of a cover-up.

Anti-government protesters were set to hold fresh rallies outside the parliament in Valletta on Sunday.

A Maltese court is expected to rule Monday on a request by Fenech for the chief investigator in the case, Keith Arnaud, to be removed, amid allegations he also had close ties to Schembri and the prime minister.