Costa Concordia recovery 'will take up to 10 months'

Italian coastguard dinghy by the Costa Concordia off Italy (29 Jan 2012)
Image caption Search operations on the submerged ship have been halted by rough seas

The operation to recover the capsized cruise ship Costa Concordia could take up to 10 months, Italy's top rescue official has said.

The 114,500-tonne ship ran aground on rocks off the Italian island of Giglio on 13 January, with more than 4,200 people on board.

The number of people known to have died in the disaster stands at 17, with another 15 still unaccounted for.

Bad weather has already delayed searches and fuel pumping operations.

Dutch salvage company Smit had begun to remove the more than 2,300 tonnes of fuel on Friday, but says it now hopes to begin work next week, amid fears the fuel could leak and damage the vulnerable coastline.

'Significant timeframe'

Franco Gabrielli, head of Italy's civil protection agency, said the first goal of the recovery mission had been to find survivors.

"Now we have a single, big goal, and that is that this does not translate into an environmental disaster."

He said it would take up to two months for salvage companies to respond to a call for tenders from the ship's owners, Costa Corciere.

"Taking into account the constraints that weather and sea conditions may impose, it will take seven to 10 months to remove the wreck," he told the Ansa news agency.

Image caption The stability of the ship on the rocks is being closely monitored

"We already knew that this was a very long, drawn out case but I think it's important that everyone is very aware that it will have a very significant timeframe."

Experts monitoring the ship's stability on the rocks said it had shifted 3.5cm overnight on Sunday because of high winds and waves.

That forced divers to suspend their searches of the ship on Sunday morning amid safety concerns.

But Mr Gabrielli said searches for the missing passengers and crew would resume quickly, citing "the moral imperative to return the bodies to their families", AFP news agency reports.

The captain of the Costa Concordia, Francesco Schettino, is under house arrest in his home town of Meta di Sorrento, near Naples, while his actions are investigated.

He is accused of multiple manslaughter, causing a shipwreck, and abandoning ship before all passengers were evacuated. He denies the allegations.