MAE SAI (Thailand) • Rescue divers inched closer to a spot in a flooded cave where 12 boys and their football coach are believed to be located, after days of bad weather hampered the gruelling search.
The children, aged 11 to 16, and their 25-year-old assistant coach have not been heard from since they ventured into the recesses of the Tham Luang cave in northern Thailand on June 23 and were trapped by heavy rain.
The clouds parted yesterday and, with the help of water pumps, divers were able to establish a forward operating base inside the twisting chambers, raising hopes that the "Boars", as the football team is known, could be located soon.
"Today is a bright day for me and our team. We have sunlight today, roads are easily walkable," Mr Narongsak Osottanakorne, governor of Chiang Rai province, told reporters yesterday afternoon.
He said water levels in the cave had decreased and that almost 60 foreign and Thai divers were involved in the rescue effort.
"Today what we have to do is to rush to the kids," Thai Navy Seal commander and Rear-Admiral Apakorn Yookongkaew said earlier at the site. "We will not stop until we find them."
Responders are placing extra oxygen tanks, strong ropes and LED lights along the cave's walls in hopes that they can provide a path to an airy chamber called Pattaya Beach, where officials believe the 13 are taking refuge because of its elevation.
Rescuers have advanced 600m from the base towards the Pattaya site, while heavy drilling at separate chimneys outside the cave has started in an attempt to establish communication with the boys.
The upbeat mood came after a week of heavy rain that pounded the area near the border with Myanmar and Laos, making it difficult to reach deeper into Tham Luang.
The dramatic wait for news of the missing boys and their coach has transfixed Thailand, capturing the attention of social media users and dominating the front pages of newspapers.
Buddhist monks from all over Chiang Rai gathered at a local school to pray for the football squad.
Teams of foreign experts from Australia, England, Japan and China, including more than 30 United States military personnel, have descended on the remote mountainous site to join some 1,000 Thai rescuers.
At 10km, Tham Luang is one of Thailand's longest and toughest caves to navigate, but drilling experts hope its limestone formations could make a series of holes and alternative entrances explorable by camera.
"We still expect some difficulties because we have to drill not vertical, but inclined," Mr Suthisak Soralump, a geotechnical engineer leading the effort, told Agence France-Presse.
Officials said the boys know the site well and have visited it many times, so they may have been able to find shelter.
Rescuers discovered footprints and handprints in a chamber earlier in the week, farther in from where they recovered the boys' football boots, backpacks and bicycles.
Relatives and friends have held vigils and prayed for their safe return. "I miss them," said 15-year-old Thananchai Saengtan, a friend of one of the boys. "I want them to come back so we can play football together again."