Rescuers have found the bodies of two women in the wreck of the Costa Concordia, raising the death toll in the cruise-liner accident off Italy's Tuscan island of Giglio to 15.

The bodies found near the ship's internet cafe came after navy frogmen used explosives to blow open more access points for divers.

"Two more bodies, two women, were found," Franco Gabrielli, the chief of the civil protection services, said on Monday.

"We cannot tell what nationality they were. They haven't been extracted" from the half-submerged vessel.

Gabrielli said DNA from the corpses would be compared with relatives of the missing. Some of those relatives remain on Giglio, waiting for news of their loved ones 10 days after the ship first struck land.

The discovery of the two women, coming one day after divers found the body of a woman on the stern of the cruise ship brings the number of those still officially missing to 17.

However, authorities have not ruled out the possibility that at least one stowaway may still be among the missing.

Gabrielli said the search of the 114,500-tonne ship will continue "until all parts of the vessel that can be inspected have been checked".

Pumping out fuel

Gabrielli has also given the go-ahead for the pumping of thousands of tonnes of potentially hazardous fuel from the Costa Concordia.

The Italian authorities have given a contract to Smit Salvage to start pumping out the fuel to prevent an environmental disaster off Giglio, which lies within the Mediterranean Sea’s largest marine sanctuary.

"We are ready to go. We are ready to start working. If possible tomorrow," Bart Huizing, a representative of Smit Salvage on Giglio, said.

The procedure, known as "hot-tapping", will involve pumping the fuel out into a nearby ship and replacing it with water so as not to affect the ship's balance.


The Costa Concordia accident explained

Environmentalists say the fuel tanks have to be emptied as soon as possible to avert an environmental catastrophe in Europe's biggest marine sanctuary.

Gabrielli said there has already been some contamination of the sea from toxic substances on board. Tests carried out by an environmental agency on samples of sea water near the wreck showed no hydrocarbon pollution.

The coastguard said that emptying the fuel tanks would take 28 days and was expected to start as early as Tuesday. There will be three lines of booms around the ship while the operation is conducted to avoid possible spills.

The Costa Concordia ran aground on January 14, while passengers dined, about two hours after the ship had set sail from the port of Civitavecchia on the Tyrrhenian Sea.

Francesco Schettino, the Italian captain of the ship, is under house arrest for investigation of alleged manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning the ship before all passengers and crew were evacuated.

Schettino insists he helped co-ordinate the evacuation from Giglio's docks after leaving the ship when the Concordia lurched to one side.

Pierluigi Foschi, director of the company that owns the $450m ship, told Italian state television on Friday that the company spoke to the captain about 20 minutes after the Costa Concordia struck the reef.

He said Schettino's description of events at that time "did not correspond to the truth".

Schettino did not say he had hit a reef and did not tell crew members "the gravity of the situation", Foschi said.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies