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Malta's PM calls early elections amid family scandal

Malta's Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has called elections for June 3 - a year early - to test his popularity following allegations that his wife owns an offshore company in Panama.

With the announcement, Labour party leader Mr Muscat, whose 2013 election as prime minister broke a 15-year-old tenure by conservatives in Malta's government, defied opposition demands for his resignation.

He has denied allegations that his wife Michelle owns an offshore company set up secretly in Panama.

A magisterial inquiry has been launched.

Having an offshore company is not illegal, but the revelations triggered a political storm.

Mr Muscat expressed concern that the political ugliness could harm Malta's economy.

The country's unemployment rate stood at a low 4.1% in February.

Announcing the early parliamentary election while speaking at a May Day gathering in the capital Valletta, Mr Muscat said Malta's citizens will be able to choose if they "want to move forward with me" or with others he contends want to sully his reputation.

"I am clean," he said.

"We have made mistakes, some big, some small," Mr Muscat added.

"I take full responsibility, but in the last four years the country has reaped great success with the lowest unemployment ever recorded."

Earlier, opposition leader Simon Busuttil demanded that Mr Muscat resign after "four corrupt years".

The so-called Panama Papers leaks last year revealed that both Malta's energy minister and the government's chief of staff had opened offshore companies in Panama.

The identity of the owner of a third company opened by a Maltese remained elusive for many months.

Last month, the third owner was identified in the media as Mr Muscat's wife.

The allegation pushed the prime minister to launch an inquiry led by a magistrate even while he dismissed it as untrue.

Malta currently holds the rotating EU presidency's helm.

Its tenure expires on June 30.

AP

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