Latin America & Caribbean

Chile miners speak to loved ones for first time

Media captionThe supply line which is proving vital to the Chilean miners

Miners who have been trapped underground in Chile for more than three weeks have had their first telephone contact with loved ones.

Families queued to use a special telephone cabin and were given one minute each to talk to the trapped men.

Psychologists have urged family members making the calls to sound optimistic.

The breakthrough came as Chile's mining minister insisted that the rescue shaft drilling - due to begin on Monday - was likely to take three to four months.

On Sunday reports from engineers working on a "plan B" option has suggested this could be cut by as much as half if an existing route down was adapted.

Staying strong

The telephone calls lent a new immediacy to communications with the miners. Until now only handwritten notes have been passed through the bore holes.

Officials are looking at several plans to rescue the 33 men, who have been stuck below ground since 5 August.

Workers are due on Monday to start drilling an escape shaft going about 700m (2,300ft) underground, which is likely to take 90 to 120 days to complete.

Health Minister Jaime Manalich said the men's spirits had been "strengthened" by the phone calls from their families.

He said that psychologists had asked family members making the calls "to be optimistic and to try not to break down with emotion".

One of the miners' wives, Carola Narvaez, said her husband, Raul, was in good spirits after her telephone conversation.

"I told him we were thinking of him and he should keep his chin up," Mrs Narvaez de Bustos told the BBC by phone. "He was talking non-stop and I found it difficult to get a word in," she joked.

The atmosphere among the wives and children at the mine head was "upbeat", Mrs Narvaez de Bustos added.

Nasa assistance

Meanwhile, details have emerged of plans to send supplies down to the miners.

Men suffering severe skin irritation from the hot, wet conditions underground have been sent quick-dry clothing; others have been sent mats to sleep on to protect them from the damp ground.

The men have also been sent mp3 players to allow them to listen to music.

It was also revealed that a team of experts from Nasa in the US will be flown on Tuesday to the site at the San Jose gold and copper mine, near the city of Copiapo, some 725km (450 miles) north of Santiago.

The US space agency has extensive experience preparing astronauts for long spells in confined spaces on the International Space Station.

It had been reported that a "plan B" could allow the miners to be rescued in as little as 30 or 60 days.

But Mining Minister Laurence Goldborne said the three to four month estimate was "extremely clear".

"There are other technologies that have been studied but none of them has improved significantly this time. So we are keeping on track trying to study and we want to have a backup hole," he said.

As part of the original plan Chile has imported a special hydraulic bore to drill the escape shaft down to the miners.

Media captionThe BBC's Gideon Long describes the footage of the miners as they sent greetings from underground

The Strata 950 will drill a shaft down to the men, and a capsule can be lowered to rescue the men one by one.

On Friday, Mr Manalich said five of the trapped miners were showing signs of depression, and that psychologists would try to help them through an intercom system.

The miners were discovered on 22 August after the mine collapsed several weeks earlier.

On Thursday the men made a video for their families showing their living conditions in the shaft, which was broadcast on Chilean TV.

The men appeared to be in good spirits, despite their ordeal.

Many family members have camped out at the surface of the mine.

Some relatives have launched legal cases against government officials and the owners of the mine, which was reopened in 2008 after being closed because of an accident.

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