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Italy to go ahead with Costa Concordia salvage

Italian authorities have given the final go-ahead to begin salvaging the Costa Concordia cruise liner. The ship ran aground and capsized near the Tuscan coast early last year, killing 32 people.

Italy's Civil Protection Agency on Sunday waited for favorable weather conditions before giving final approval to the project. Salvage workers have already begun fixing metal chains and cables to raise the 290 meter (951 foot) vessel ahead of the operation, set to begin Monday.

"Tomorrow we will show that everything we have imagined, thought of and calculated will happen as planned," the head of the Civil Protection agency, Franco Gabrielli, told reporters on the island of Giglio, near where the ship suffered its fatal accident.

Once the ship is upright and stabilized, it is to be refloated and towed to a shipyard for scrapping. The salvage operation, which could take up to 12 hours, is slated to begin at 6:00 a.m. Monday. Engineers have never before attempted to upright such a large ship and environmental activists warn that doing so could risk spilling thousands of tons of toxic waste.

On January 13, 2012, the Costa Concordia struck a reef near Giglio Island, tearing a 70 meter gash in its hull and subsequently capsizing. Of the more than 4,200 passengers and crew aboard, 32 were killed.

Expensive project

The salvage project has cost more than 600 million euros ($800 million) so far. When the operation is completed, the final bill could run more than 1.1 billion euros, according to one of the insurance companies financing it.

Experts had looked to salvage the ship last spring, but poor weather halted the operation. Salvage master Nick Sloane said that it had become a now or never situation, as the ship's weakening hull could not survive another winter.

Sloane expressed optimism heading into Monday, saying that initial efforts to test the operation had lifted the vessel up by about 10 centimeters (2.5 inches), which appeared to allay fears that the hull was caught on the reef in such a way that it would resist removal.

"We know that … she is lively enough to move," Sloane told reporters.

Using weights and chains wrapped around the ship's hull, salvage workers will slowly pull the ship upright at approximately 3 meters per hour. Once upright, an equal number of tanks - called "sponsons" - will be placed on both sides of the vessel and filled with air to help float it.

"The most delicate phase will be in the first five or six hours," said the president of the environmental oversight group for the ship, Maria Sargentini.

Missing victims

The bodies of two of the victims have never been recovered and may lie beneath the wreckage. Authorities are planning renewed efforts to locate the missing victims.

"As soon as the ship will be stabilized, we will gather all the forces and we will plan to make it possible," Gabrielli said.

Four crew members of the Costa Concordia were given short prison sentences earlier this year for their role in the accident. The ship's captain, Francesco Schettino, is on trial for manslaughter and abandoning the vessel before all passengers had been evacuated.

dr/slk (AFP, AP, dpa)