ROME (Reuters) - The owners of the capsized Italian liner Costa Concordia said Thursday they expected to announce plans by the end of March to remove the wreck.
Costa Cruises, a unit of Carnival CorpCCL.L>, the world's largest cruise ship group, said in a statement it had invited 10 leading salvage companies to tender for the contract to remove the ship.
It said it expected to select the company by the end of March, although delays were possible in an operation of such complexity.
The 290 meter-long Costa Concordia capsized and foundered close to the Tuscan island of Giglio on January 13 after its struck a rock which tore a large gash in its hull. At least 17 people died in the accident and 15 others are still missing.
Officials have estimated that the salvage operation could take between 7-10 months once preparations have been completed, meaning the vast hulk will remain where it rests until the end of the year at least.
The ship's captain Francesco Schettino has been blamed for causing the accident by steering too close to shore.
He has been placed under house arrest and faces charges of multiple manslaughter and abandoning ship before the evacuation of more than 4,200 passengers and crew was complete.
Costa, which puts the blame for the accident on Schettino, is facing a series of individual and class action suits from lawyers representing passengers and crew of the ship.
On Giglio, where the huge wreck lies half submerged meters from the shore, rescue services have abandoned the search for bodies and are preparing to begin removing more than 2,300 tones of diesel fuel to prevent an environmental disaster.
(Reporting by James Mackenzie; Editing by Andrew Heavens)