MAE SAI (Thailand) • Desperate parents led a prayer ceremony yesterday outside a flooded cave in northern Thailand where 12 children and their football coach have been trapped for days, as military rescue divers packing food rations resumed their search.
Hundreds of people have been mobilised to find the group who entered the Tham Luang cave last Saturday and got trapped when heavy rains flooded its main entrance.
Anxious relatives camped out to perform traditional rituals, making offerings and reciting prayers for their children's safe return.
"I asked for all God's wishes, but I'm certain in my heart that they will survive. They have been inside the cave before," the father of one of the young footballers said.
Some relatives wailed at the entrance of the cave, which is near the Laos and Myanmar border, where huge crowds have gathered near stockpiles of water and food.
"My child, I'm here to get you," one parent cried, while another screamed: "Come home, my child!"
Among those waiting were three teammates who skipped the cave expedition after soccer practice because their parents wanted them home, media reports said.
"I can't concentrate at school knowing they are in there, so I came here," said Sonpong Kantawong, 14, who missed the trip because his mother drove to pick him up after soccer practice.
The children, aged between 11 and 16, are thought to have retreated into the tunnel as monsoon rains fell and flooded the cave, believed to be several kilometres long.
Rescuers found bicycles, football boots and backpacks at the entrance to the site on Monday, and divers said they spotted footprints in one of the cave's chambers.
Park officials, police and soldiers were dispatched on foot, while an aerial team was also being mobilised to see if there was another entrance to the cave.
Navy divers equipped with oxygen tanks and food rations yesterday entered the cave in northern Chiang Rai province.
Rescuers were sent to light the inside of the cave and drain water from the site, while an underwater robot was set to be dispatched to survey the area.
Interior Minister Anupong Paojinda said they were working around the clock to find the group. "We're working against time, but we're not panicking," he said.
The forecast was for more rain yesterday, which could hamper rescue efforts.
Tham Luang cave is not hugely popular among foreign tourists because of its remote location but it draws locals who worship at small Buddha statues inside.
Downpours routinely pound Thailand during the monsoon season from May to October, often causing flooding and landslides.
Fifteen people died in floods last December that submerged swathes of Thailand's south and hit hundreds of thousands of households.
This is not the first cave accident in the country. Six foreign tourists and two Thai guides were killed in 2007 when they were swept away by flash floods in a cave in Khao Sok national park in southern Thailand.