The captain of the luxury liner shipwrecked off Italy on Friday has explained his early escape from the vessel by claiming he stumbled into a life raft and was unable to get out.

Francesco Schettino, who has become the subject of a hate campaign in Italy, also admitted to a judge that he made a mistake by steering too close to Giglio island.

Italian newspaper La Repubblica also reported he'd told investigating magistrates in Grosseto, Italy that he'd ended up in the life raft by accident.

"The passengers were pouring onto the decks, taking the lifeboats by assault. I didn't even have a life jacket because I had given it to one of the passengers. I was trying to get people to get into the boats in an orderly fashion.

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"Suddenly, since the ship was at a 60 to 70 degree angle, I tripped and I ended up in one of the boats. That's how I found myself there," he said during the three hour interview.

As further attempts to search the stricken vessel were called off yesterday, the preliminary investigations judge, Valeria Montesarchio, declared the 51 year-old captain guilty of "negligence and ineptitude'' in justifying the seaman's house arrest at Sorrento, near Naples, according to released court documents.

She said Schettino had failed to advise the Italian Coastguard quickly enough after he struck rocks along the coast and later abandoned the ship while hundreds were still thought to be on board. Prosecutors accuse Schettino of multiple-manslaughter and of abandoning his ship before his passengers. The Grosseto magistrate, Francesco Verusio, said yesterday that he would press for incarceration rather than house arrest to prevent the suspect from fleeing.

Eleven people have been confirmed dead in the tragedy, including 38-year- old Hungarian violinist Sandor Feher, and up to 22 are still missing. Details of the missing, released yesterday by in the Interior Ministry, most of whom are presumed dead, shows the majority were in their 60s or 70s. One of the missing people is a six-year-old Italian girl.

Meanwhile, leaks from the court hearing, printed by leading newspapers, showed that Schettino had sought to explain his early escape by telling the court that he had inadvertently found himself blocked on a life-raft with two senior officers.

Another off-duty captain aboard the Concordia, Roberto Bosio, who was reported to have taken charge of the evacuation efforts, was yesterday hailed as a hero by the Italian press. On the coast, small but worrying movements by the ship saw officials halt efforts to search its flooded interior yesterday.

In another development, Dutch salvage firm Smit indicated that it was ready to begin removing the 2,300 tons of fuel aboard to prevent a disastrous leak. However, coastguard officials told The Independent that salvage work that impeded their ability to continue their search for the missing passengers would be opposed.