- Gabrielli says the search of underwater portions of the ship is temporarily suspended
- About half the cruise ship is under water, as it lies at an angle near shore
- Salvage companies have been asked to present plans for the giant ship's removal
- Costa Cruises says it is committed to protecting the island and its tourism industry
The search of underwater areas of the wrecked cruise ship Costa Concordia has been suspended for safety reasons, the head of Italy's civil protection agency said Thursday.
Franco Gabrielli, who is directing the salvage operation, made the announcement after meeting with technical experts.
The search of the parts of the ship currently lying underwater will "resume in later stages, once the operations of de-bunkering" -- removal of oil -- "and internal cleaning have created the conditions that can guarantee security," he said in a written statement.
Rescue workers have already inspected 98% of the portion of the ship resting above water, Gabrielli said, adding that the search there and in the waters extending 18 square kilometers (7 square miles) around the ship will continue.
A total of 15 people remain missing after the cruise ship's collision with rocks off Giglio Island on the coast of Tuscany on January 13. Seventeen bodies have been recovered. There were about 4,200 people on the cruise liner when it crashed.
Franco Schettino, captain of the Costa Concordia, said that after the ship hit the rocks, he ran it aground off Giglio Island to keep it from sinking and limit the tilting. It came to rest on its starboard, or right, side, with roughly 50% of the ship under water. It is currently rotated nearly 90 degrees.
Underwater operations have previously been temporarily suspended for safety reasons, but have always resumed.
Officials have been particularly concerned for divers who have been searching submerged areas of the ship amid a sea of debris that includes heavy items and wires.
Gabrielli also met with the people of Giglio on Thursday, amid worries over the lasting environmental effects of the disaster.
He told them planning for the removal of the ship from rocks has started, and that Costa Cruises, which ran the cruise, has given its commitment that it will work toward a plan that will cause the least environmental impact possible.
The siphoning off of fuel will resume as soon as the weather conditions allow it, Gabrielli said.
A final decision will be taken on a plan to remove the debris and waste water from the ship next week, the statement said.
Costa Cruises said in a statement that it was "working with the utmost commitment and speed on the plan to remove the ship itself, fully aware that this is a priority to protect the environment on Giglio and the island's tourism."
Costa is working with technical experts on the best way to deal with the enormous wreck, the statement said.
It has also invited 10 leading salvage companies around the world to put forward a plan to remove the hull of the Costa Concordia. The best one will be selected by the end of March, the company said.
Gabrielli said earlier this week that if the ship does not slip into deeper water, it will take at least seven to 10 months to remove the wreckage. And that process won't begin until after the fuel is removed, which could take 28 working days.
In the meantime, there will be no fishing, diving, snorkeling, or other normal use of the water near the wreckage, extending the disaster's economic toll.
Meanwhile, Schettino is under house arrest on suspicion of manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning ship while passengers were still on board.
He denies the charges, saying his actions saved lives.
Schettino has admitted to prosecutors, defense attorneys and a judge that he made a "mistake" in colliding with the rocks off shore. But he has brushed aside suggestions that he was going too fast, as prosecutors allege.
The lead prosecutor in the case is asking that Schettino be sent back to jail. A hearing has been scheduled for February 6.
Schettino's lawyer says he should be released from house arrest.
A number of survivors have filed lawsuits against Costa Cruises.
Costa has announced it was offering each of about 3,200 passengers who had been aboard the vessel a lump sum of 11,000 euros ($14,400), in compensation for their loss of property and emotional distress, as well as a refund of costs associated with the cruise.
Separate agreements will be reached with those passengers who were injured and needed treatment and with the families of those who died, Costa said.