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Rescue operation suspended on stricken Italian cruise liner


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ROME // Italian rescue workers have suspended operations after the stricken ship shifted slightly on the rocks near the Tuscan coast, creating deep concerns about the safety of divers and firefighters searching for the 22 people still missing.

The US$450 million (Dh1.65 billion) Costa Concordia had more than 4,200 passengers and crew on board when it slammed into the reef on Friday off the tiny Italian island of Giglio after the captain made an unauthorised manoeuvre.

The bodies of five adult passengers — four men and one woman, all wearing life jackets — were discovered yesterday, raising the death toll to 11. Their nationalities were not immediately released.

Instruments attached to the ship detected the movements early today, forcing the search to be suspended even though firefighters who spent the night searching the area above water could not detect the movement. No additional passengers or crew were found.

"As a precautionary measure, we stopped the operations this morning, in order to verify the data we retrieved from our detectors, and understand if there actually was a movement, and if there has been one, how big this was," said Coastguard Commander Filippo Marini.

Officials said they hope the data from the instruments will reassure them that the ship has resettled, allowing the search to resume. The latest victims were discovered after navy divers exploded holes in the hull of the ship to allow easier access.

In addition to the rescue, much of the focus has been on the cruise ship captain's actions during and after the grounding.

In a dramatic phone conversation released yesterday, a coastguard official was ordering the captain, who had abandoned the ship with his first officers, back on board to oversee the evacuation. But Capt Schettino resisted the order, saying it was too dark and the ship was tipping dangerously.

Click here for the transcript of the audio conversation

The judge who released the captain of the Costa Concordia into house arrest said there was mounting evidence against the Captain Francesco Schettino's claims that he had tried to rejoin the stricken vessel.

The fact that other crew and officers stayed on board to try to evacuate the passengers refuted the captain's claim that he could not oversee the operation from the vessel, said Judge Valeria Montesarchio.

The judge also considered that Capt Schettino had not made "any serious attempt" to return to the vessel "or even close to it" after leaving during the evacuation.

She also noted that once he had left the ship, he remained for hours on the rocks with crew members watching the rescue operation.

Explaining her ruling, she said she did not think there was any risk that Capt Schettino would try to flee but she did believe he could try to conceal evidence, which is why he needed to be under house arrest.

Under Italian law he will not be allowed to leave his home in the village of Meta di Sorrento, south of Naples or communicate with anyone apart from his lawyer and very close family.

Criminal charges including manslaughter and abandoning ship are expected to be filed by prosecutors in the coming days. He faces 12 years in prison for the abandoning ship charge alone.

Italian authorities say 24 passengers and four crew members are missing, including the five bodies found yesterday. They include two Americans, 13 Germans, six Italians, four French, a Hungarian, an Indian and a Peruvian.

Meanwhile, a Dutch company said it would be ready to begin operations to pump fuel from the ship to avert a potential environmental disaster.

Luca Cari, a fire department spokesman, said once the all clear is given, the plan is to both resume the search and begin work on pumping the fuel out in tandem.

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