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Dispute over tug delays stricken Costa cruise

Updated 4:04 PM ET

(CBS/AP) A disabled cruise ship will have spent an extra 10 to 12 hours at sea without electricity, air conditioning or toilet facilities because a French fishing vessel that was first to respond to the drifting cruiser refused to give way to faster tug boats, a Seychelles government official said Wednesday.

A spokesman for the cruise line denied that the tow would have been faster with the tugs and said the disabled cruise ship was always scheduled to reach the Seychelles' main port on Thursday.

The head of the France-based company which owns the tuna boat pulling the limping ship said the cruise line was the sole decision-maker.

The government minister, Joel Morgan, told The Associated Press that the cruise ship Costa Allegra likely would have arrived in port Wednesday night local time if the tugs had been allowed to take over. Instead, the ship is not scheduled to reach port until midmorning Thursday.

"The Seychelles authorities are not happy about this situation and we would have wished to get the ship into port as soon as possible in order to ensure the safety and well-being of the passengers," said Morgan, Seychelles minister of home affairs, environment, transport and energy.

Morgan said that when the Seychelles tugs met up with the Costa Allegra on Tuesday, a "conversation" took place to see the fishing vessel step aside and the faster tugs put in place. "The discussion went on for quite a while to no avail," he said.

Davide Barbano, a Costa spokesman, denied that the tow would have been faster with the two tugs.

"It was decided to continue with that (the fishing vessel) because it guaranteed the smoothest voyage for those on board," he said.

Morgan said the Seychelles is not happy that the financial objectives of the French vessel were put ahead of the interests of the passengers. Morgan claimed the French vessel has been towing at 4 nautical miles, whereas the tugs could have traveled at 6 to 7 nautical miles. Barbano said the fishing vessel was traveling at around 6 nautical miles, "depending on the sea conditions."

The director of France's Regional Operational Center for Surveillance and Rescue, or CROSS, said maritime rules allowed the French fishing vessel to continue with the towing job.

"We were in a rescue operation, the tuna boat arrived first. Then there are negotiations as one can imagine," said Nicolas Le Bianic, in the French department of Reunion. Any assistance to people is free, not the case here, he said. "Assistance to the boat, in contrast, is paid. That's the rule of principle set by maritime texts."

Le Bianic estimated the towing journey at some 500 kilometers (about 300 miles or about 260 nautical miles).

The situation on the Costa Allegra since a fire in the generator room killed the ship's power has been difficult, Morgan said.

"The sanitary facilities are not working, so there's no toilets, no showers," he said. "It's not very convenient right now."

The Genoa, Italy-based Costa said the Allegra would arrive at about 9 a.m. local time Thursday (0500 GMT, midnight EST) -- three days after the ship lost power and began drifting in the Indian Ocean. However, the ship's estimated arrival at port has been pushed back repeatedly, and the spokeswoman for the Seychelles president said late Wednesday that the Costa may not arrive until as late as noon.

The Allegra began drifting in the Indian Ocean after a fire broke out in its generator room on Monday. Italy's Coast Guard said that a team from the Infrastructure and Transport Ministry's investigative unit has traveled to the island of Mahe with the Italian Coast Guard to do "the first assessment" of how the fire started.

Cmdr. Filippo Marini, however, said it was not a full-fledged investigation.

"This is a first assessment," Marini said. "It is not an active investigation."

A representative of the cruise ship company Costa Crociere said Wednesday that an investigation needs to be carried out before a determination is made as to whether the fire was an accident or set deliberately. The official said that investigators from the International Maritime Authority could also investigate. The official said he was not authorized to be identified.

Barbano said that while the investigation is still under way "arson is very unlikely."

In a bit of good news for the passengers, Costa said that 378 of the 600-plus guests took Costa up on their offer for a paid two-week holiday in the Seychelles after arriving in port. Others will be given flights to Europe within hours of their arrival at port.

Three planes with a seating capacity of at least 580 passengers were lined up to fly the passengers of the cruise ship Costa Allegra back to Rome, Gilbert Faure, the chief executive of the Seychelles Civil Aviation Authority said Wednesday. He said the first plane is tentatively scheduled to leave Thursday afternoon.

The Costa official said passengers could choose to be flown to Italy, Germany or France.

Costa said soft drinks and cold food such as fruit, cold cuts, cheeses and fresh bread are available to passengers, along with mineral water for personal hygiene needs. They said the situation is "regular" and the weather is good.

Monday's fire came only six weeks after the Costa Concordia hit a reef and capsized off Italy, killing 25 people and leaving seven missing and presumed dead. No one was injured in the fire Monday, but passengers have been without power, communications and air conditioning since the accident.

The ship's operator, Costa Crociere SpA, said it expected a helicopter to deliver 400 flashlights and fresh bread to the passengers on Wednesday. The operator said the ship has sufficient food and that a small generator delivered by a navy ship -- it did not specify from which country -- could help restore basic services and "to make the situation on board more comfortable."

Two tug boats arrived alongside the cruise ship on Tuesday but the slower French fishing vessel continued to tow it. A Costa Concordia official in the Seychelles said he did not know enough about the situation to comment. Alan St. Ange, the chief executive of the Seychelles Tourism Board, said the tugs were helping push the Costa Allegra and that "everybody is working together."

The Allegra, whose Italian name means "merry," or "happy," left northern Madagascar, off Africa's southeast coast, on Saturday and was cruising toward Port Victoria when the fire erupted. Costa said the Allegra had been due in Port Victoria on Tuesday.

The liner is carrying 413 crew members and 636 passengers, including 212 Italians, 31 Britons and eight Americans. Four passengers are children ages 3 or younger.

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