By James Mackenzie
ROME (Reuters) - The owners of the doomed Italian cruise liner Costa Concordia were not aware of unsafe practices involving ships coming close to shore to give tourists a better view, Costa Cruises chief executive Pier Luigi Foschi told a newspaper on Friday.
Foschi's comments to the Corriere della Sera daily underline the growing battle between the company and the Concordia's captain, Francesco Schettino, who is blamed for causing the accident, in which at least 11 people died.
Costa has suspended Schettino and declared itself an injured party in the case, in which the captain is accused by prosecutors of multiple manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning ship before all the passengers were evacuated.
Investigators say Schettino steered the 114,500 tonne vessel too close to the Tuscan island of Giglio, where it ran aground and capsized last week.
Some islanders said they had been told beforehand that he would perform a maneuver known as a "salute" which took the ship within 150 meters of the shore.
Foschi told the Corriere della Sera that ships sometimes passed near to shore during what he termed "tourist navigation" but he said this was always performed safely and he denied that the company knew the Concordia would be going so close.
"I can't rule out that individual captains, without informing us, may have set a course closer to land. However I can rule out ever having known that they may have done it unsafely," he said.
"Personally, I think he wasn't honest with us," he said.
Schettino's lawyer Bruno Leporatti denied that his client had delayed before reporting the accident to the company.
"Schettino immediately informed Costa of the problem, that is, the impact with the rocks," he told reporters.
The disgraced captain has admitted coming too close to the shore but has denied bearing sole responsibility, saying other factors may have been involved.
"Schettino told me that if he made any errors, he is ready to assume his responsibilities," Leporatti said.
Doubts have already been expressed about whether Costa Cruises, a unit of Carnival Corp, the world's largest cruise operator, can have been unaware of the practice of ships "saluting."
Enrico Scerni, former president of the ship classification organization RINA, suggested in a newspaper interview that it was difficult to believe that Costa was unaware that captains often went close to Giglio to "salute" the island and give passengers a closer view.
Scerni resigned from his position soon afterwards and RINA issued a statement saying that the routes specified by Costa "conformed with all criteria of good navigation."
Foschi criticized delays in evacuating the ship after it struck a rock which gashed its hull and denied that any pressure had been exerted on Schettino to wait before deciding to abandon ship because of cost considerations.
"I assure you absolutely that no one thought in financial terms. That would be a choice that would violate our ethics," he told the newspaper.
(Additional reporting by Silvia Ognibene in Grosseto; Editing by Alison Williams)