Malta PM to step down in January

Protests over journalist murder probe handling forced him to promise resignation

Malta's PM Joseph Muscat announced on Sunday he would step down early January after his successor is chosen, news wires reported. In a televised address he said he was resigning “as this is what needs to be done,” but declined to make a link with Caruana Galizia's 2017 murder. Muscat's successor is to be chosen by 12 January.

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. Earlier on Sunday, the Labour leader got the unanimous backing of party 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.

Meeting at Muscat's summer home, MPs 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 has 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. 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. Tycoon's detention came after an alleged middleman in the murder, taxi driver Melvin Theuma, was offered immunity in exchange for identifying others who were involved.

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

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

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