By Antonella Cinelli
GIGLIO, Italy, Jan 22 (Reuters) - The captain of the cruise liner that capsized off Italy's coast has told prosecutors the vessel's operators, Costa Cruises, instructed him to perform a maneuvre that brought it too close to shore, according to leaked transcripts of his questioning.
Captain Francesco Schettino has been blamed for the Jan. 13 accident, in which at least 12 people died. He is under house arrest, accused of multiple manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning ship before all passengers were evacuated.
Prosecutors say Schettino steered the vessel, which carried more than 4,200 passengers and crew, within 150 metres of the Tuscan island of Giglio to perform a maneuvre known as a "salute" - a greeting to the islanders.
The vessel struck a rock and tipped over. It is now precariously lying on its side on an undersea ledge, half-submerged and threatening to slide into deeper waters.
Costa Cruises have said they were not aware of the dangerous practice of bringing the ship so close to the shore and have suspended the captain, saying he was responsible for the disaster.
But in a sign of the growing confrontation between Schettino and the ship owners, the captain told investigating magistrates Costa had instructed him to do the salute, according to transcripts of his hearing published by Italian media.
"It was planned, we should have done it a week earlier but it was not possible because of bad weather," Schettino said.
"They insisted. They said: 'We do tourist navigation, we have to be seen, get publicity and greet the island'."
He also said that the black box on board had been broken for two weeks, and that he had asked for it to be repaired, in vain.
In the hearing, Schettino insisted he had informed Costa's headquarters of the accident straight away, and his line of conduct had been approved by the company's marine operations director throughout a series of phone conversations.
He acknowledged, however, not raising the alarm with the coast guard promptly and delaying the evacuation order.
"You can't evacuate people on lifeboats and then, if the ship doesn't sink, say it was a joke. I don't want to create panic and have people die for nothing," he said.
Costa, a unit of Carnival Corp, says Schettino lied to the company and his own crew about the scale of the emergency.
Documents from his hearing with a judge say he had shown "incredible carelessness" and a "total inability to manage the successive phases of the emergency".
Taped conversations have revealed the ship's bridge told coast guards who were alerted by passengers that the vessel had only suffered a black-out even after those on board donned life vests.
Adding to the growing debate about the ship's safety standards, Franco Gabrielli - head of Italy's Civil Protection authority which is coordinating the rescue operations - said a number of unregistered passengers might have been on board.
Relatives of a missing Hungarian woman told authorities she was on the Costa Concordia with a member of the crew, but her name was not on the list of passengers, he said.
"In theory, there could be an unknown number of people who were on the ship and have not been reported missing because they were not registered," Gabrielli said.
Of the 12 bodies recovered, only 8 had been identified - four French nationals, an Italian, a Hungarian, a German and a Spaniard. At least 20 people are still unaccounted for.
EARLY SIGNS OF POLLUTION
Minor pollution from detergents and disinfectants aboard the shipwreck had been detected in the waters around the vessel but there was no sign that the heavy fuel in its tanks is leaking, Gabrielli said.
He said tests were being carried out daily on the waters around the ship and a nearby desalinisation plant that provides drinking water for the island's residents.
"The tests for toxic substances are negative so far," Gabrielli said. "The only significant elements detected, which luckily are not worrying yet, relate to ... detergents and disinfectants used on the ship, for the swimming pool or to clean the bathrooms for example."
Environment experts have warned contamination of the pristine waters around Giglio, which is the middle of a national marine park, is already under way and it is imperative to start recovering the fuel oil as soon as possible. (Writing by Silvia Aloisi; Editing by Sophie Hares)