CHIANG RAI, Thailand (Reuters) – As a search in northern Thailand for 12 boys and their soccer coach missing inside a flooded cave entered a sixth day on Friday, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha visited the site, offering encouragement to rescuers and comfort to relatives.
The boys, aged between 11 and 16, and their 25-year old assistant coach went missing on Saturday after they decided to explore the Tham Luang cave complex in Chiang Rai province, despite a sign warning visitors that the maze of passages and chambers was prone to flooding.
Bicycles and soccer shoes belonging to the boys were found near the entrance, and rescue workers think handprints inside the cave could have been left by the group. But the search has so far yielded no other trace.
The race to find the boys has gripped the Southeast Asian nation, and Prayuth spoke to rescue workers before going inside the cave.
“Whatever can be done, do it, the government will back it,” said Prayuth. “I’m not worried about the work of the staff but I’m worried about time elapsed for those lost inside the cave,” Prayuth told officials.
“I’ve come to give everyone encouragement,” he added.
International rescue teams, including one sent by the United States Pacific Command (PACOM), are assisting the Thai army, navy and police in a search operation that has been hampered by heavy rain.
Plans to drill into the mountain side overnight to drain water from inside the vast cave complex have been partially successful.
“We were able to drill on the side,” Chiang Rai Governor Narongsak Osatanakorn, told reporters.
The 10-kilometer (6 mile) cave is one of Thailand’s longest. Visitors are usually only allowed up to 800 meters inside the cave, which has a reputation for being difficult to navigate.
A man who got lost inside the cave in 2002 along with four friends recalled his experience inside the “labyrinth”, saying it was a miracle he got out alive.
Exhausted family members have been keeping vigil near the cave as they await news about their loved ones.
Prayuth spoke to family members after visiting the cave.
“They’re athletes. They’re strong,” he told the boys’ relatives in an attempt to comfort them.
Additional reporting by Amy Sawitta Lefevre, Panarat Thepgumpanat and Pracha Hariraksapitak; Writing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore