Islanders shrug as Italy's 'shipwreck captain' returns

GIGLIO ISLAND, Italy (AFP) - Residents of Italy's Giglio Island reacted with mixed emotions on Wednesday to the first return visit by captain Francesco Schettino since a tragedy in which 32 people on his Costa Concordia cruise ship died.

Schettino, who is on trial for manslaughter, arrived on Giglio on Tuesday and was expected to board the stricken ship on Thursday with experts from the court after being granted special dispensation by a judge.

"We are hoping he and his ship will go away soon," said Mr Franco Caverno, 68, a ferry crewman, expressing the frustration of many islanders with ongoing work more than two years after the January 13, 2012 tragedy.

But there was also sympathy for the infamous captain in this seafaring community of just a few hundred souls where some feel he could be a scapegoat for wider blame.

"Mistakes were made. It wasn't just him, there was a responsibility for other people," Mr Caverno said.

Schettino watched his ship from the deck of the ferry that took him to Giglio from the mainland late on Tuesday in images shown on Rai2 public television in which the much-maligned captain appeared visibly moved.

"I always said I would come personally. I always said I wanted to return dignity to the living, honour the dead and establish the truth for the honour of all Italian captains," Schettino told a Rai2 journalist on the boat.

"I never abandoned the ship!" he insisted, responding to one of the charges in the trial against him which has earned him the tabloid nickname "Captain Coward".

With 4,229 people from 70 countries on board, the luxury liner crashed into a group of rocks just off Giglio as it was attempting a risky "salute" manoeuvre.

The vessel then veered wildly and keeled over.

Some of the victims drowned as they jumped into the sea to swim ashore, others perished in flooded elevators.

The ship was righted last year in the biggest-ever salvage operation of a passenger ship ever attempted and is due to be re-floated and towed away in June.

Schettino is on trial for manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and leaving the ship before all the passengers had been evacuated - all of which he denies.

He has accused the ship's Indonesian helmsman, Jacob Rusli Bin, of causing the accident because he misunderstood his steering order and has said he preferred to supervise the evacuation from dry land.

Giuseppe De Politi, a 70-year-old fisherman, said he was not surprised that Schettino would feel emotional.

"It's sad to see that wreck there. A captain would be very sad, feel anxiety and regret," he said.

Mr De Politi said that he felt "neither here nor there" about Schettino's return to the island and said local residents had "come to terms" with the presence of the 290-metre, 114,500-tonne ship on their coast.

"They've resigned themselves to it after two years, they've become hardened," the fisherman said.

But Ms Michelina Suriano, a lawyer representing seven of the Italian survivors at the trial, said Schettino should have returned on board the ship on the night of the disaster - not now.

"It makes no sense now," said Ms Suriano, who will take part in the inspection of the ship on Thursday.

"There were other times when he should have got back on board. People should have been saved, not abandoned."

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