BAB BERRED, MOROCCO (AFP) - Moroccan rescuers raced against the clock on Friday (Feb 4) to save a young boy trapped in a deep well for almost three days, in an operation that has gripped the kingdom, with hundreds of thousands anxiously glued to live broadcasts.
Relief operations intensified for five-year-old Rayan, who fell down a 32m-deep well on Tuesday, as darkness fell with diggers clawing out dirt under floodlights to create a hole next to the narrow shaft.
"The child's rescue is approaching," government spokesman Mustapha Baitas said on Thursday. "Our hearts are with the family, and we are praying that he will be back with them as soon as possible."
The drama has sparked an outpouring of sympathy online, with the Arabic hashtag #SaveRayan going viral across North Africa, including in neighbouring Algeria.
The drilling in the village near Bab Berred in Morocco's rural northern province of Chefchaouen has hit 27m, with "the hope of reaching 32m in the next few hours", Morocco's MAP news agency reported.
The rescuers will then dig 3m horizontally "between the hole and the well to recover the child", it said.
A medical team has been dispatched to the scene to carry out initial checks and potential resuscitation once the boy is rescued.
Rescuers were able to send the child oxygen and water via pipes, and a police helicopter is on standby to evacuate him to a nearby hospital.
Rayan's father told Le360 news website that he had been repairing the well when the boy fell into it.
"I couldn't sleep a wink all night," he said.
His grandmother Laaziza said Rayan "is very loved here in the village, not just at home" by his family.
"I miss him, it's been three nights," she said.
Lead rescuer Abdelhabi Temrani told Al Oula television that the diameter of the well was less than 45cm.
Mr Baitas said the nature of the soil meant it was too dangerous to try to widen the hole, meaning major excavations around it were the only solution.
The broadcasts of several Moroccan media outlets are being followed minute-by-minute by hundreds of thousands of Internet users hanging on for news about the child's fate.
Moroccan footballer and PSG star Achraf Hakimi mentioned the rescue efforts on social media, alongside emojis of a broken heart and hands together in prayer.
Manchester City's Algerian star Riyad Mahrez also joined the chorus of solidarity, sharing a picture of Rayan on Facebook alongside the hashtag "Stay Strong".
The boy's fate has attracted crowds of people to the site of the operation, putting pressure on rescuers operating in "difficult conditions", Mr Baitas said.
"We call on citizens to let the rescuers do their job and save this child," he said.
The accident echoes a tragedy that occurred in Spain in early 2019 when a two-year-old child died after falling into an abandoned well 25cm wide and more than 70m deep.
Julen Rosello's body was recovered after a search and rescue operation that lasted 13 days.