Copiapo: Chile will begin rescuing 33 trapped miners later this month, several weeks earlier than planned, Mines Minister Laurence Golborne said.
Rescue workers will start winching up the men, trapped some 700 meters (2,200 feet) below ground, "in the second two weeks of October”, Golborne said.
"It`s a positive sign, and shows that some things are advancing faster than had been thought."
Chilean officials and engineers overseeing the complex operation to extract the men previously said they would not be ready to begin hoisting them to the surface until early November.
The workers, who have set a record after being trapped underground since an August 05 cave-in, will be placed one by one in a thin cage specially designed to pull them up via a narrow bore hole being drilled through the earth.
Golborne said President Sebastian Pinera and the miners -- who had already made their own estimates of a mid-October rescue -- had been told of the new target.
"They are very up to date with what`s going on at the surface," Golborne told reporters.
The minister said that for now there was no exact "D-Day" date for the rescue, expressing hope the timeline would be "fine-tuned more precisely" in the coming days.
Golborne`s announcement drew cheers from the families of the trapped miners.
"Our spirits have been super-buoyed. We`re really happy, above all for the men inside the mine. There`s happiness all round," Maria Segovia, the sister of one of the trapped men, said outside the mine.
Golborne said the accelerated rescue timeline came thanks to progress made by three digging machines opening shafts to the underground shelter where the men are trapped.
The one closest to the miners is the T-130, which has burrowed its way down 372 meters (1,220 feet), well past the half-way goal mark of 630 meters (2,067 feet).
The other two drilling machines, the Strata-950 and the huge RIG-421 oil drilling platform, were still far behind in boring a tunnel wide enough -- 60-70 centimetres (24-28 inches) -- for the miners.
Meanwhile, the owners of the San Esteban mining company that runs the San Jose mine near Copiapo, were ordered by a judge not to leave the country during a 90-day investigation into a July accident in which a falling rock took out a miner`s leg.
The lawyer for owners Alejandro Bohn and Marcelo Kemeny claims the accident was "typical" of mining operations around the country, while the lawyer for the injured miner called it the result of "negligence" by the mining company directors.
The families of 29 of the trapped miners on Thursday filed a lawsuit against the San Esteban management and the state regulatory body the National Geological and Mines Service, for allowing the mine to reopen in 2008 despite a fatal accident in 2007.
The mining company was already in financial straits when the latest cave-in took place. An appraiser is due to devise a plan to either continue operations or initiate bankruptcy proceedings.
The government has asked the courts to freeze all assets of the San Esteban group -- about USD 9.7 million -- to fund rescue operations the government has been paying so far.