Chiang Rai, Thailand: Rescue workers in Thailand on Monday brought four boys safely out of a labyrinthine flooded cave complex where a 12-member soccer squad and their coach were trapped for more than two weeks, taking the total number rescued to eight.
The mission to save all the trapped could take three or four days, officials have said, a race against the clock with heavy rain expected this week which would again flood the tunnels with fast-flowing, rising water.
A Reuters witness near the Tham Luang caves in the northern province of Chiang Rai saw medical personnel carrying four people to waiting ambulances over the course of the day.
"The whole world is watching," said dessert vendor Jitt Thongnuk, 56, at an intersection near the hospital where the boys have been taken, adding that his business was suffering because roads had been blocked to make way for ambulances.
"But I`m happy this is happening. My losses are little in comparison." The dramatic and dangerous rescue was launched on Sunday and four boys were brought out that day. They were in good condition in hospital, officials said.
"As of now, eight people have left the cave," a rescue official told Reuters. The official declined to be identified as he was not authorised to speak to the media. The Thai navy SEAL unit, which has been overseeing the rescue, confirmed on its Facebook page that the total number of boys brought out was eight.
"The rescue has been immense," said volunteer helper Somjit Saenset, 56. "I`m so happy the children came out safely. I want to send my moral support for all involved" in the rest of the mission.
The "Wild Boars" soccer team and their coach became trapped on June 23 when they set out to explore the vast cave complex after soccer practice, when a rainy season downpour flooded the tunnels.
British divers found the 13, huddled on a muddy bank in a partly flooded chamber several kilometres inside the complex, on Monday last week. Efforts to rescue the boys - aged between 11 and 16 - got going again on Monday after a break to replenish oxygen supplies and make other preparations deep inside the cave complex.
Thirteen foreign divers and five members of Thailand`s elite Navy SEAL unit make up the main team guiding the boys to safety through narrow, submerged passageways that claimed the life of a former Thai navy diver on Friday.
The head of the rescue mission, Narongsak Osottanakorn, said that the "same multinational team" that went into the cave on Sunday to retrieve the first four boys was deployed on Monday.
On Sunday, divers held the first four boys close to bring them out, and each had to wear an oxygen mask to enable normal breathing, authorities said. Narongsak said rescuers had to tighten a guide rope as part of their preparations for Monday`s operation.
Interior Minister Anupong Paojinda told reporters the four boys rescued on Sunday were in good health in hospital but did not give details. There was no word on the condition of any of the people brought out on Monday.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha went to the cave to inspect the rescue operation, with navy rescuers giving him a rousing cheer. Authorities have not confirmed the identity of the first four boys rescued. Some of the parents told Reuters they had not been told who had been rescued and that they were not allowed to visit the hospital.
Narongsak said the rescued boys had not been identified out of respect for the families whose sons were still trapped, adding that the boys were being kept away from their parents due to fear of infection. "The four children are well at Chiang Rai Prachanukroh hospital. But they still need to be kept away from their parents and others," he said.
Medical teams previously said concerns included hypothermia and an airborne lung infection known as "cave disease", which is caused by bat and bird droppings. Somboon Sompiangjai, 38, the father of one of the trapped boys, said parents were told by rescuers ahead of Sunday`s operation the "strongest children" would be brought out first.
"We have not been told which child has been brought out ... We can`t visit our boys in the hospital because they need to be monitored for 48 hours," Somboon told Reuters. "I`m hoping for good news," he said.
The cave complex is off-limits during the rainy season, which usually runs from May to October, when downpours can quickly flood it. Relatives said the boys had been inside the complex during the dry season.
The president of soccer`s governing body, FIFA, has invited the boys to the World Cup final in Moscow on Sunday if they make it out in time.