[SEOUL] Special prosecutors investigating South Korea's swirling corruption scandal said they would decide Tuesday whether to indict the heir to the Samsung empire, after losing a bid to extend their inquiry.
The team was appointed by parliament in December to look into the scandal that has seen President Park Geun Hye impeached and embroiled a host of major companies.
The prosecutors have been probing a wide range of allegations, including claims that Samsung bribed Ms Park's confidante Choi Soon Sil to win state approval for a controversial merger of two of its units.
The special prosecutors had sought to extend their term. But Acting President Hwang Kyo Ahn, who is standing in for Ms Park while the Constitutional Court decides whether to remove her from the Blue House, rejected the request.
"After thinking long and hard, the acting president judged it was best to allow (state) prosecutors to take over to ensure stability," Hong Kwon Heui, a spokesman for the Prime Minister's Office, told reporters.
The decision means they have until Tuesday - after which the inquiry will go back to ordinary prosecutors -- to decide whether to indict Samsung heir Lee Jae Yong, who was arrested earlier this month on bribery and other charges, and multiple other suspects including former senior officials.
"We plan to review whether to indict the suspects who have been charged or arrested so far, and process them in a batch tomorrow," said Lee Kyu Chul, a spokesman for the special prosecutors.
Laying formal charges is necessary before a trial and would mean that the suspects were almost certain to go to court.
In the case of Mr Lee - whose father was himself convicted of tax evasion and embezzlement in 2008 - that would mean continued embarrassment for the world's biggest smartphone maker and months of distraction for some of its top management.
The special prosecutor's team said Mr Hwang's decision was "regrettable" but vowed to "thoroughly wrap up the case" and cooperate with the state prosecutors who will retake control over the investigation.
The state prosecutors have previously been more sympathetic towards Mr Lee and other businessmen involved in the scandal, describing them as victims.
The main opposition Democratic party called Mr Hwang's decision "a historic atrocity that dumped cold water on people's expectations".
The scandal centres on Ms Park's close friend Ms Choi, who is accused of using her ties with the president to meddle in state affairs and to force millions of dollars from local firms.