Malta PM to resign amid jounralist murder probe protests

Valletta (AFP) –


Malta's Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, under fire over his handling of the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, said Sunday he would step down after his replacement is chosen in January.

Muscat declined to make a link with Caruana Galizia's 2017 murder, saying in a televised address that he was resigning "as this is what needs to be done."

The announcement came after two weeks of mounting pressure and popular protests calling for Muscat to quit for his handling of the probe into Caruana Galizia's car bomb killing.

Muscat said he would resign after his successor is chosen by January 12.

Earlier Sunday, the Labour leader got the unanimous backing of part MPs at an emergency meeting called a day after tycoon Yorgen Fenech was charged with complicity in the murder. A court has also frozen Fenech's assets.

The investigation has rocked the southern Mediterranean island, reaching the highest echelons of government.

Critics including members of Caruana Galizia's family have accused Muscat, 45, of protecting those involved in murdering the popular journalist and blogger who exposed cronyism and sleaze within the tiny country's political and business elite.

Meeting at Muscat's summer home, MPs on Sunday agreed to reinstate Chris Cardona as economy minister and deputy leader.

Cardona had announced last week that he was "suspending himself" as the investigation into the killing of Caruana Galizia, a mother-of-three, in a brutal attack implicated top government officials.

Last week, the scandal claimed the scalps of Muscat's top aide Keith Schembri and the former tourism minister, Konrad Mizzi.

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

- 'One-woman WikiLeaks' -

Caruana Galizia, described as a "one-woman WikiLeaks", accused Schembri of corruption along with Mizzi and Cardona.

Caruana Galizia's family and thousands of protesters have repeatedly taken to the streets calling for Muscat's resignation.

Protesters including Caruana Galizia's elderly parents on Sunday marched through central Valletta carrying signs reading "Mafia" and "Daphne was right", slamming Muscat as "an obstacle to justice".

On Saturday, party insiders told AFP that Muscat was ready to go once those behind the killing had been charged.

- EU mission -

A European Parliament delegation is due to arrive on Malta late Monday and stay until Wednesday.

Led by Dutch MEP Sophie in't Veld, it will examine doubts about the Judiciary’s independence and investigate allegations of high-level corruption.

"Malta is part of Europe," in't Veld tweeted. "This concerns us all."

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 immunity in exchange for identifying others who were involved.

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

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.