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South Korea's Yoon blocks new probe of 2022 Halloween crowd crush

A man mourns at the memorial altar for victims before a press conference against the government’s decisi...

A man mourns at the memorial altar for victims before a press conference against the government’s decisi...

SEOUL, Jan 30 (Reuters) - South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol blocked on Tuesday a bill to launch a new probe into a Halloween crowd crush that killed 159 people in Seoul's Itaewon district in 2022, in a move slammed by the opposition and relatives of the victims.

Yoon's office announced his veto of conducting an investigation with an independent panel hours after the prime minister described the opposition-backed bill as politicised and potentially in breach of the constitution.

"The pain from the disaster cannot be used as a tool to justify political strife and a possibility of unconstitutionality," Prime Minister Han Duck-soo told a cabinet meeting, denying an earlier probe by police and prosecutors was flawed.

The move to block the bill has been criticised by relatives of the victims and opposition party officials who have long argued the government's handling of the disaster had been inadequate.

Park Young-soo, a mother who lost her son in the crowd crush, accused the government of being "petty" by blocking the inquiry and offering financial compensation instead.

"That's not what we have been fighting for more than a year for," Park told Reuters.

Song Hae-jin, another mother of a victim, said families who have been trying to get justice for their children would have a "very tough time" accepting the government's position.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee said last year that South Korea should establish an independent and impartial body to investigate the disaster and ensure those responsible are brought to justice, including top officials.

Song Doo-hwan, chairman of the National Human Rights Commission, South Korea's top human rights watchdog, has also backed an independent probe.

South Korea's main opposition Democratic Party leader Lee Jae-myung has called the Yoon administration "cold-blooded" for blocking the bill.

A police investigation published early last year concluded that a lack of preparations and an inadequate response were the main cause of the deadly crush.

No senior government figures, including the interior and safety minister, however, have resigned or been sacked over the crush.

Prosecutors indicted the head of the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency earlier this month, charging him with contributing through negligence to the disaster.

The special bill put forward by parliament planned to include a panel appointed by the ruling party, the opposition and relevant groups to lead a fact-finding investigation.

The bill was supported by opposition parties but criticized by the ruling People Power Party (PPP) which said the panel would be biased in favour of the opposition.

Yoon won a close election in 2022 but his PPP is a minority in the parliament, which is controlled by the rival Democratic Party. The next general election will be held in April.