Race to free 8 boys

Thai rescue teams arrange water pumping system at the entrance to a flooded cave complex where 12 boys and their soccer coach have been trapped since June 23 in Mae Sai Chiang Rai provin

Thai rescue teams arrange water pumping system at the entrance to a flooded cave complex where 12 boys and their soccer coach have been trapped since June 23 in Mae Sai Chiang Rai provin

Foreign elite divers and Thai Navy SEALS on Sunday morning began the complex operation to extract the 12 boys and their football coach as they raced against time, with imminent monsoon rains threatening more flooding that would doom the mission.

After a 15 day ordeal, reports suggest first two boys of the Thai soccer team trapped in a cave have been brought out to safety.

The 12 members of the Wild Boars junior soccer team and their 25-year-old coach Ekkapol Chantawong first went missing on June 23 after heavy rains entrapped them in the Tham Luang cave where they'd gone for a trek. Monsoon flooding blocked off their escape and prevented rescuers from finding them for nearly 10 days.

Four boys have so far completed the hazardous escape, according to rescue officials, and are receiving medical treatment. Gen. Chalongchai Chaiyakam said.

To get them out through the miles of submerged passages, they were each tethered to a diver, with another positioned behind them, as they made their way through the dark, murky waters that have filled the cave's passageways. The latter option is extremely unsafe, and the arduous trip caused the death of a former Thai Navy SEAL as he lost consciousness underwater while placing extra air tanks inside the cave to allow other rescuers to reach the group.

After a short deluge of rain on Saturday night and with more bad weather forecast, Narongsak on Sunday said authorities had to act immediately.

Mongkhol Boonpiam, 14, has been named by some Thai media as one of the rescued boys.

Rescuing the remaining boys and coach could take two to four days, and depended on the weather, an army commander involved in the mission said.

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha was expected to visit the cave site later Monday, after first travelling south to Phuket, where a boat capsizing resulted in 42 deaths, mostly tourists from China. The operation began at 10 a.m. local time and went faster than initially expected, but did not confirm which boys were rescued. "The boys' strength, the plan - today we are ready like before".

Their ordeal has drawn huge media attention in Thailand and overseas, and getting the boys out safely could be a boost for Thailand's ruling junta ahead of a general election next year. As of Sunday evening local time, four boys had been successfully removed from the cave.

It is likely to take up to 8 hours to get each boy the 1.7 kilometres, by swimming and diving, from deep inside the cave to the third chamber.

None of the boys' identities have been publicly revealed.

The other, and perhaps more worrying, was that oxygen levels in the complex were falling close to risky levels.

"I am still waiting here at the cave, keeping my fingers crossed to see whether my son will be one of those to come out today", Supaluk Sompiengjai, mother of Pheeraphat - known by his nickname "Night" - told AFP.

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. "The next best situation would be if the water level is as low as possible to move the kids".