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Fuel removal under way on Italy cruise ship

Snow covers the rooftops of the houses overlooking the harbour of the Tuscan island of Giglio, Italy, Saturday, Feb. 11, 2012, as the grounded Costa Concordia cruise liner still lays stricken in background. The Concordia ran aground on Jan. 13 after the captain deviated from his planned route and gashed the hull of the ship on a submerged reef.  (AP Photo/Paolo Fanciulli)

Snow covers the rooftops of the houses overlooking the harbour of the Tuscan island of Giglio, Italy, Saturday, Feb. 11, 2012, as the grounded Costa Concordia cruise liner still lays stricken in background. The Concordia ran aground on Jan. 13 after the captain deviated from his planned route and gashed the hull of the ship on a submerged reef. (AP Photo/Paolo Fanciulli)

ROME (AP) -- Underwater pumping operations began Sunday to remove some of the 500,000 gallons of fuel aboard the Costa Concordia, officials said, nearly a month after the cruise ship ran aground off Tuscany.

After nearly two weeks of delays because of rough seas and bad weather, the pumping got under way on the first of 15 tanks that are believed to hold around 84 percent of the fuel on board, Italy's civil protection department said.

Officials say it will take 28 consecutive days of pumping to empty the tanks.

Dutch shipwreck salvage firm Smit is overseeing the operation, along with an Italian partner.

The fuel extraction process involves fixing valves on the underwater fuel tanks, one on top, one on bottom. Hoses are attached to the valves and as the oil -- which must be warmed to make it less gooey -- is sucked out of the upper hose, sea water is pumped in to fill the vacuum via the lower hose.

Ever since the Concordia ran aground Jan. 13, fears have swirled about fuel leaks and resulting contamination of the pristine waters off the tiny island of Giglio, which form part of a protected sanctuary for dolphins, whales and porpoises. There have been no reports of any serious leaks.

The Concordia slammed into a reef off Giglio after the captain deviated from the ship's planned course in an apparent stunt. Passengers have said the captain then delayed sounding the evacuation alarm until the ship had capsized so much that lifeboats on one side couldn't be lowered.

About 4,200 passengers and crew escaped, but 17 bodies have been found and another 15 people remain missing and presumed dead.

The captain, Francesco Schettino, is under house arrest, accused of manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning the ship before all the passengers had been evacuated. He has said the reef wasn't marked on his nautical charts.