Morocco held its breath as rescue workers on Saturday entered a tunnel leading to a pocket where a five-year-old boy has been trapped for days after falling into a well, AFP correspondents said.
For five days the complex and risky earth-moving operation has gripped residents of the North African kingdom and beyond, also sparking sympathy in neighbouring Algeria, a regional rival.
A medical team was with the rescuers, who still hope to find young Rayan alive. It was not immediately clear how long it would take for them to exit the tunnel.
A camera inserted into the well where Rayan is stuck had shown him, from behind, lying on his side, said Abdelhadi Tamrani, an official in charge of the operation.
But it is “impossible to say with certainty that he is alive,” Tamrani told AFP.
Onlookers applauded to encourage the rescuers, sang religious songs or prayed, chanting in unison “Allahu akbar” (God is greatest).
The more time that passes, the more fears arise over Rayan’s condition.
Rescuers had tried to get oxygen and water down to the child but it was not clear whether he was able to use the vital supplies, AFP reporters said.
Rayan accidentally fell about 32 metres (100 feet) down the narrow shaft near his home in the remote village of Ighrane in Chefchaouen province on Tuesday afternoon.
Rescue crews, using bulldozers and front-end loaders, excavated the surrounding red earth down to the level where the boy is trapped and are now digging horizontally towards him, by hand.
– ‘Showing solidarity’ -They face a risk of landslides, and on Saturday had to manoeuvre around a large rock which blocked their way.
Earlier in the darkness, crews had moved a heavy pipe into position in the area. One rescuer lugged what appeared to be a jackhammer.
A glacial cold has gripped this mountainous and impoverished region of the Rif, which is at an elevation of about 700 metres (2,300 feet).
Thousands of people have gathered and even camped in solidarity around the site in recent days, where AFP reporters have said the tension has been palpable.
We are showing solidarity with this child, who is dear to Morocco and the whole world,” said onlooker Hafid El-Azzouz, who lives in the region.
We hope that, with God’s will, he will get out,” he said.
The shaft, just 45 centimetres (18 inches) across, was too narrow to reach Rayan, and widening it was deemed too risky — so earth-movers dug a wide slope into the hill to reach him from the side.
The operation has made the landscape resemble a construction site. It involves engineers and topographers, and was made more complex by the mix of rocky and sandy soils.
Red-helmeted civil defence personnel have at times been suspended by rope, as if on a cliff face.
Overnight they worked non-stop under powerful floodlights that gave a gloomy air to the scene.
– ‘Moving a mountain’ –
“I keep up hope that my child will get out of the well alive,” Rayan’s father told public television 2M on Friday evening. “I thank everyone involved and those supporting us in Morocco and elsewhere.”
He said earlier in the week that he had been repairing the well when the boy fell in.
The drama has sparked an outpouring of sympathy online, with the trending Arabic hashtag #SaveRayan.
“Millions of people across the world are holding their breath in the race against time to save Rayan,” one Twitter user wrote.
Another paid tribute to rescue workers working around the clock for days, saying, “they are real-life heroes”.
Police reinforcements have been sent and metal barricades erected in an effort to prevent a swarm of onlookers from impeding rescuers.
One volunteer said he was there to help. “We’ve been here for three days. Rayan is a child of our region. We won’t leave until he’s out of the well,” he said.
The accident echoes a tragedy in Spain in early 2019 when a two-year-old child died after falling into an abandoned well 25 centimetres wide and more than 70 metres deep.
Julen Rosello’s body was recovered after a search and rescue operation that lasted 13 days.