Bird’s nest climbers who participated in the search-and-rescue operation at Tham Luang cave in Chiang Rai are welcomed at Hat Yai airport on Wednesday on their way back home to Koh Libong in Trang. (Photo by Assawin Pakkawan)

Volunteers and officials who took part in the mission to save 12 young footballers and their coach have left behind an unforgettable legacy and returned home to warm welcomes from local residents.

Bird’s nest climbers returning home from Chiang Rai’s Mae Sai district arrived in Hat Yai district of Songkhla on Wednesday — and were greeted with a banner reading “Libong Heroes” and a welcoming party of officials at the airport.

Eighteen climbers from the island in Kantang district, Trang, volunteered in the international operation on June 30, using their expertise to climb down through chimneys in the mountain over Tham Luang as rescuers were trying to find alternate ‘back door’ entrances to the cave to reach the 13 trapped inside.

They are highly skilled at scaling steep cliffs to collect swallows’ nests on islands off the Andaman coast, and they believed that their skills could be useful for the search-and-rescue mission.

“We are proud to have participated in the mission to help the Mu Pah team. We did not expect anything in return,” team leader Alifin Tesnam said at the airport.

“For this operation, everybody is a hero because they had one goal in mind: to find the boys and coach and take them out safely,” he said. “We are overwhelmed by all the support.”

Bird’s nest climbers arrive at Hat Yai airport on Wednesday. (Video by Assawin Pakkawan)

Ivan Karadzie, a Danish diving instructor, arrived on Koh Tao in Surat Thani on Wednesday to greetings from officials and his supporters.

Mr Karadzie left the resort island on July 2 with two other instructors — Dane Nikko Paasi and Canadian Erik Brown — to join other divers at the cave.

Kadawadee Meepien, the Koh Tao Rescue Centre chief, said the three are volunteers at the centre and had taken part in other rescue operations in Surat Thani.

Other units, including police paratroopers from the Naresuan camp, departed Chiang Rai for their base in Cha-am district, Phetchaburi.

Danish diver Ivan Karadzie is greeted on his return to Koh Tao in Surat Thani from Tham Luang cave. (Photo by Supapong Chaolan)

Phayao governor Narongsak Osotthanakorn, who led the entire operation, on Tuesday night declared the mission accomplished after the last four boys, their football trainer Ekkapol Chantawong and the last group of Navy Seal divers emerged safely from the cave.

The rescue operation took 18 days to complete from the moment the boys and their coach entered the camp on June 23.

The 13 are receiving medical treatment in Chiangrai Prachanukroh Hospital in Muang district. Their family members have not yet been allowed to meet them, and have only been able to watch them from outside the rooms.

Hospital director Chaiwetch Thanapaisal said on Wednesday that all were safe and doing well. “The last group is recovering more quickly than the first two,” he told a press briefing.

News Reporter

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