Four of the 12 schoolboys trapped in a flooded cave in Thailand have been brought to safety, it has been confirmed.
The remaining children are expected to be rescued in the next phase of the operation, due to start in the next 10-20 hours.
Sources said the boys were immediately taken to a field hospital set up near the cave. Sometime afterward, eyewitnesses at the scene reported seeing air and land ambulances leaving the cave site, believed to be transporting the boys to Chiang Rai hospital, about 50 miles away.
Tossathep Boonthong, chief of Chiang Rai’s health department and part of the rescue team, announced the emergence of the first two children to Reuters late on Sunday morning. Around 90 minutes later a senior member of the medical team said a total of six boys had exited the cave, though this was later clarified to reflect that four boys had safely been delivered to hospital.
Along with their football coach, the boys had been trapped deep inside a cave for more than two weeks before the rescue was launched on Sunday. “Today is D-Day,” Narongsak Osottanakorn, head of the mission, had earlier told reporters.
Forty Thai navy SEAL divers and 50 foreigners are taking part in the strategy, which will see each boy and the 25-year-old coach accompanied to safety by two divers. Elite British divers, Rick Stanton and John Volanthen, are understood to be part of the team.
Each journey will see the children, some as young as 11 and not strong swimmers, navigating dark and tight passageways filled with muddy water and strong currents, as well as oxygen-depleted air.
Experienced cave rescue experts had considered an underwater escape a last resort, especially with people untrained in diving, as the boys are. The path out is considered especially complicated because of twists and turns in narrow flooded passages.
Samarn Poonan, 38, a former member of Thailand’s elite navy SEAL unit, died on Thursday night as he worked underwater in the cave complex, laying oxygen tanks along a potential exit route.
But the governor supervising the mission said earlier that mild weather and falling water levels over the last few days had created optimal conditions for an underwater evacuation that will not last if it rains again.
Earlier in the week divers brought notes from the boys to their families, in which they urged them not to worry and asked to be taken out for fried chicken when they returned. The coach who led the boys into the cave has also apologised in a handwritten letter.
Bursts of heavy monsoon rain soaked the Tham Luang Cave area in northern Chiang Rai province on Sunday and storms were expected in the coming weeks, increasing the risks in what has been called a “war with water and time” to save the team.
The boys, aged between 11 and 16, went missing with their coach after football practice on June 23, setting out on an adventure to explore the cave complex near the border with Myanmar and celebrate a boy’s birthday.
Rescuing them all could take three to four days and depended on the weather, an army commander involved in the mission said. An Australian doctor who is part of the rescue mission checked the health of the boys on Saturday night and gave the all-clear for the operation to proceed.
The first rescues were not expected to have been completed for several hours, though a reporter at the scene said lowered water levels had decreased the journey time out of the cave.
The boys and their coach have been invited by Fifa president Gianni Infantino to the World Cup final in Russia, should they be healthy enough to travel.
West Midlands Fire and Rescue Service tweeted: “Our thoughts are with everyone involved in the Thai cave rescue of 12 boys and their adult leader.
“Former West Midlands firefighter Richard Stanton, who served in Coventry for 25 years and is a world expert in cave diving, is among those leading today’s operation.”