In this handout photo released by the Thai Navy on Saturday, Thai rescue teams walk inside the cave complex where 12 boys and their soccer coach went missing in Mae Sai, Chiang Rai province, northern Thailand.Picture: AP
Six of 12 schoolboys had been rescued so far from a flooded Thai cave after divers launched a dangerous mission to free the children and their soccer coach, who had been trapped underground for more than two weeks, Thai officials said.

“I have received information that six have exited the cave,” a senior member of the rescue team said.

Thirteen foreign divers and five members of Thailand’s elite navy Seal unit are trying to bring the rest of the boys - some as young as 11, and weak swimmers - through narrow, submerged passageways that claimed the life of a former Thai navy diver on Friday.

A helicopter flew some of the boys to the nearby city of Chiang Rai, where they were taken by ambulance to hospital.

Their ordeal has drawn huge media attention in Thailand and abroad, and getting the boys out safely could be a boost for Thailand’s ruling junta before a general election next year.

“Today is D-Day,” Narongsak Osottanakorn, the head of the rescue mission, had earlier told reporters.

Bursts of heavy monsoon rain soaked the Tham Luang Cave area in northern Chiang Rai province yesterday 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 25-year-old coach after soccer practice on June23, 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 would depend on the weather, an army commander involved in the mission had said earlier.

The rescue teams had rehearsed the plan for several days, Narongsak said, and had managed to drain the water level in the cave considerably, but needed to move fast.

“If we wait and the rain comes in the next few days we will be tired again from pumping and our readiness would drop. If that’s the case, we have to reassess the situation,” he 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 boys were discovered by British divers Richard Stanton and John Volanthen last Monday.

Of the 13-strong foreign dive team - mainly from Europe - three were escorting the children, while the remainder were positioned along the dangerous first kilometre stretch, where the boys will have to navigate through submerged passageways in some places no more than 0.6m wide.

Thirteen medical teams are stationed outside the cave - each with its own helicopter and ambulance - one for each of the 12 boys and their coach.

After an initial assessment at the site, the plan was to airlift the boys to a makeshift helipad close to the Chiang Rai Prachanukroh hospital, about 70km away.

A source at the hospital said that five emergency response doctors were awaiting the party and a further 30 doctors were on standby, adding that everyone was feeling tense.

“The teams here are happy the boys are being rescued, but also anxious about the severity of the boys’ conditions. We’re under a lot of pressure,” she said, declining to be named because she was not allowed to speak to the media.

The area outside the hospital was cordoned off with police patrolling the area, a reporter at the scene said.

Down the street, a loudspeaker told vendors to “keep off the road” and to “not obstruct the transfer mission”.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the leader of the military junta that seized power in 2014, planned to visit the cave site today, a government spokesperson said.

His visit with relatives and rescue officials last week was criticised by some Thais as opportunistic as his government had faced pro-democracy protests in the capital Bangkok in recent months. - Reuters