Thai authorities evacuate cave area for 'rescue operation'
Announcement came as dark monsoon rainclouds loomed over the mountainous north of the country early on Sunday
Thai authorities on Sunday said they plan to evacuate an area around a cave in northern Thailand where a dozen boys and their soccer coach have been trapped so that a "rescue operation" can take place.
The announcement came as dark monsoon rainclouds loomed over the mountainous north of the country early on Sunday, potentially heightening risks at the cave where rescuers were still waging a "war with water and time" to save 12 trapped boys and their assistant coach.
The boys, aged between 11 and 16, went missing with the 25-year-old after soccer practice on June 23 after they set out to explore the Tham Luang cave complex in a forest park near by the border with Myanmar.
"Assessing the situation now, it is necessary to evacuate the area for the rescue operation," said Mae Sai police commander Komsan Sa-ardluan over a loudspeaker. "Those unrelated to the rescue operation, please evacuate the area immediately."
A large media contingent began packing up equipment including tripods and cameras, and moving down a muddy hill away from the mouth of the limestone cave.
More rain expected
Following a relatively dry spell, fresh torrential downpours could pose a setback to rescuers who have struggled to drain the Tham Luang cave complex in the northern province of Chiang Rai.
Weather.com forecast sustained thunderstorms lasting through Sunday and Monday, with further stormy weather expected for around the next two weeks.
Narongsak Osottanakorn, a local provincial governor leading the effort said the "ideal time" for a rescue could come in the next two or three days. "We're still at war with water and time," he told reporters.
The path out is considered especially complicated because of twists and turns in narrow flooded passages.
Gong Hui, a Chinese diver involved in the operation that has drawn some 130 Thai and international divers, told Reuters on Saturday before the fresh rains that water levels in the cave had "receded a lot" after sustained pumping had removed millions of litres of water.
Time is running out on a plan to teach the boys — some as young as 11 and not strong swimmers — to make a dive through dark, narrow passageways sometimes no more than 60 centimetres wide, that have challenged some of the world's leading cave divers.
A former member of Thailand's elite navy SEAL unit died during a dive on Thursday night, a grim turn in what began two weeks ago as an outing to celebrate the birthday of one of the boys.
Up on the hill, where rescuers are seeking alternative routes down into the cave, another accident occurred when a vehicle skidded off a dirt track, seriously injuring several people, authorities said.
Earlier at the sprawling cave mouth, lines of divers and soldiers with flashlights could be seen emerging from the darkness, as generators chugged and pumped water out through plastic pipes.
Dozens of Royal Thai Army soldiers were seen resting on rocks outside the cave.
Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk tweeted that a team from his rocket company SpaceX in Los Angeles is building a mini-sub to help with the rescue.
"Got more great feedback from Thailand. Primary path is basically a tiny, kid-size submarine ... Light enough to be carried by 2 divers, small enough to get through narrow gaps. Extremely robust," Musk tweeted, adding that it would take eight hours to construct and 17 hours to transport to Thailand.
The Thai defence ministry said a team from a Musk firm with drilling and exploration know-how should reach the cave on Sunday.
Mom and Dad, please don't worry, I am fine- Tun, in letter carried out by divers
The boys sounded calm and reassuring in handwritten notes to their families that were made public Saturday. The notes were sent out with divers who made an 11-hour, back-and-forth journey to act as postmen.
One of the boys, identified as Tun, wrote: "Mom and Dad, please don't worry, I am fine. I've told Yod to get ready to take me out for fried chicken. With love."
"Don't be worried, I miss everyone. Grandpa, Uncle, Mom, Dad and siblings, I love you all. I'm happy being here inside, the navy SEALS have taken good care. Love you all," wrote Mick.
"Night loves Dad and Mom and brother, don't worry about me. Night loves you all," wrote Night, in the Thai manner of referring to one's self in the third person.
One of the most touching notes came from a boy whose name was not clear: "I'm doing fine, but the air is a little cold, but don't worry. Although, don't forget to set up my birthday party."
Another, of indistinct origin, asked their teacher not to give them a lot of homework.
Their 25-year-old coach said: "To the parents of all the kids, right now the kids are all fine, the crew are taking good care. I promise I will care for the kids as best as possible. I want to say thanks for all the support and I want to apologize to the parents."
Oxygen levels diminishing
An update Saturday from the Thai navy said three navy SEALs were with the boys and their coach, one a doctor. The 13 are having health evaluations and rehabilitation, and are being taught diving skills. Food, electrolyte drinks, drinking water, medicine and compressed air canisters have been delivered to them. A major concern of the rescuers is that oxygen levels in their safe space could fall dangerously low.
Rescuers have been unable to extend a hose pumping oxygen all the way to where the boys are, but have brought them some oxygen tanks.
Rescuers have also been pursuing other options to extract the boys, hoping that finding a shaft or drilling into the mountain in which the cave is located will lead them to a sort of backdoor entrance.
With files from Associated Press