Bab Berred, Morocco: Moroccans waited anxiously on Friday as rescuers with heavy diggers closed in on Rayan, a five-year-old boy trapped in a deep well for three nights.
The drama, now in its fourth day, has gripped residents of the North African kingdom and even drawn sympathy in neighbouring Algeria, a regional rival with strained political ties to Morocco.
Rayan fell some 32 metres (100 feet) down the dry well in his village of Ighrane in the rural northern province of Chefchaouen on Tuesday afternoon.
At least five earth-movers have excavated red soil from around the well, turning the landscape into a construction site against a backdrop of green hills.
AFP saw the machines working under floodlights throughout the night into Friday, to clear the area around the 32-metre (35-yard) deep well in the village near Bab Berred.
But the shaft, just 45 centimetres (18 inches) across, was too narrow for rescuers to reach the bottom.
On Thursday rescuers were able to send him oxygen and water via pipes, the MAP news agency said.
One of the more famous rescues happened in Midland, Texas, in 1987 when 18-month-old "baby Jessica" was rescued from a well after a parallel shaft was dug - much like what is being attempted in the Morocco.
The cases don't always end happily, however. In 2019, 2-year-old Julen Rosello fell into a similar well in Spain. The complicated rescue efforts included digging multiple tunnels to try to recover the boy. Hundreds of experts contributed to the operation, which included moving more than 17,000 tons of rocks. But they could not reach him in time, and his body was finally recovered after 13 days.
But since then authorities have not disclosed any more information on his condition.
On Friday, rescuers said they had dug down 28 meters and were preparing for a delicate operation to create a horizontal shaft to reach the boy.
But they said there is a risk of a landslide. The operation is complex because of the nature of the soil, some of which is sandy while other parts are rocky.
“The child’s rescue is approaching,” government spokesman Mustapha Baitas said.
“Our hearts are with the family, and we are praying that he will back with them as soon as possible."
Rayan accidentally fell into the narrow, dried-out well near his family’s home on Tuesday.
The boy’s mother told Moroccan media that Rayan had been playing nearby when he disappeared on Tuesday afternoon.
“The whole family went out to look for him then we realised that he’d fallen down the well,” she said with tears in her eyes.
“I’m still keeping up hope that we’ll get him out alive."
Hundreds of thousands of Moroccans have been glued to live broadcasts showing the effort to free him, and the Arabic hashtag #SaveRayan was trending again Friday.
A medical team was dispatched to the scene to carry out initial checks and potential resuscitation once the boy is rescued, and a police helicopter is on standby to evacuate him to a nearby hospital.
Rayan’s father told Le360 news website he had been repairing the well when the boy fell into it.
His grandmother Laaziza told AFP that Rayan “is very loved here in the village, not just at home” by his family.
“I miss him. It’s been three nights,” she said.
Lead rescuer Abdelhabi Temrani told Al Oula television that the diameter of the well was less than 45 centimetres (18 inches).
Baitas, the government spokesman, said the nature of the soil meant it was too dangerous to try to widen the hole, leaving major excavations around it as the only solution.
Moroccan footballer and PSG star Achraf Hakimi mentioned the rescue efforts on social media, alongside emojis of a broken heart and hands together in prayer.
Manchester City’s Algerian star Riyad Mahrez also joined the chorus of solidarity, sharing a picture of Rayan on Facebook alongside the hashtag “Stay Strong”.
The boy’s fate has attracted crowds of people to the site, sometimes hindering efforts of the helmeted rescuers.
“We call on citizens to let the rescuers do their job and save this child,” Baitas said.
The accident echoes a tragedy that occurred 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.