Fuel removal under way on Concordia
Rome - Authorities in Italy say pumping operations have begun to remove some of the 500 000 gallons of fuel aboard the cruise ship that ran aground off Tuscany.
The civil protection department says the fuel extraction operation started on Sunday afternoon nearly a month after the Costa Concordia slammed into a reef and capsized off the tiny island of Giglio.
Plans to empty the Concordia's fuel tanks were delayed first by the search and rescue operation and then by nearly two weeks of bad weather.
The emptying of 15 of the Concordia's fuel tanks - where 84% of its roughly 2 400 tons of fuel are stored - would require, weather conditions permitting, 28 working days, the ANSA news agency reported, citing officials.
The start of the de-fueling process "is the first concrete sign of the maximum commitment made during these weeks by both public and private bodies to avoid any possible environmental risk for the island of Giglio," officials said in a statement.
A fuel leak would be disastrous for the pristine waters around Giglio, which are part of a protected maritime sanctuary.
Seventeen people died in the January 13 grounding and 15 are presumed dead.
Earlier on Sunday, a memorial mass attended by Italian President Giorgio Napolitano was celebrated in Rome for the victims of the shipwreck.
"It was a tragedy and I express regret for whatever responsibility there was, Italian and by Italians," Napolitano said.
Napolitano also expressed solidarity with the relatives of the victims and praised rescuers, including scuba divers, who "had made every effort" to rescue survivors or bring to shore the bodies of those who had died in the accident.
Italy's head of state made the remarks as he was exiting Rome's Basilica of St Mary of the Angels, where the memorial mass was celebrated.
During the solemn service, the head of Italy's top Catholic bishop and head of the country's episcopal conference, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, offered prayers for the victims of the accident.