The United States Justice Department has launched a criminal investigation into offshore financial dealings exposed by the Panama Papers - leaked documents that showed money laundering and tax avoidance schemes by the wealthy and powerful.

Preet Bharara, the US attorney for Manhattan, announced the probe on Wednesday in a letter to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which had coordinated with other media outlets to report on the about 11.5 million leaked documents.

"The US Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York has opened a criminal investigation regarding matters to which the Panama Papers are relevant," he said.

"The office would greatly appreciate an opportunity to speak as soon as possible with any ICIJ employee or representative involved in the Panama Papers project in order to discuss this matter further."


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The Panama Papers have revealed how Mossack Fonseca, a Panama-based law firm, allegedly helped current and former world leaders, as well as businessmen, criminals, celebrities and sports stars, evade or avoid paying tax via anonymously owned shell companies and offshore accounts.

A year-long probe by the investigative journalists examined the papers, that came from around 214,000 offshore entities and covered almost 40 years.

Acting after the scandal, finance chiefs of the G20 meeting in Washington on Friday supported proposals requiring authorities to share the identities of shell companies' real owners.

They also backed creating a blacklist of international tax havens that do not cooperate with information-sharing programmes.

The world's business, political and even sports elite have been put on the defensive.

Iceland's prime minister was forced to resign after it emerged that he owned shares in the country's banks through an offshore company. Spain's industry minister also stepped down after the papers linked him to offshore investments in the Bahamas and a company in the tax haven of Jersey.

The leaders of Britain and Ukraine have faced questions over their taxes, while Russian President Vladimir Putin has sought to divert attention from his entourage by claiming it is all a United States plot against him.

Australia's tax commissioner has also said that he intends to propose a plan to pool international data to hunt tax dodgers at an upcoming meeting of global tax officials in Paris.

The European Union unveiled plans to force the world's biggest multinationals to faithfully report earnings and pay their fair share of taxes, saying that the Panama Papers scandal added to the need for change.

Panama pledges transparency

Panama has hit back at the apparent blemish on its image as an important financial crossroads.

Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela on Wednesday pledged that his country will stand at the forefront of a global push for greater financial transparency following the scandal.

"Our goal is to cooperate actively and to lead the efforts of the international community on the topic of the global problem," Varela said during a joint press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.


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Varela, who arrived in Japan on Sunday, also said that Panama has agreed "to advance discussions for negotiating a bilateral taxation scheme with the Japanese government" under Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development standards.

At an investment seminar on Tuesday, he said that Panama is willing to cooperate with an OECD initiative to share tax information.

Varela also defended his country while in Japan, saying in an interview with Jiji Press on Tuesday that Panama has been "wrongly" labelled a tax haven.

"Panama is a country respectful of laws," he said.

Varela also told Jiji that Panama will establish a high-level commission, to be composed of six to eight internal and external members, within six months in order to improve transparency of its financial system.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies