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Chilean president predicts Christmas return for trapped miners

Chilean President Sebastian Pinera said Wednesday he hopes 33 miners trapped nearly a half-mile underground will be home by Christmas.

The lengthy rescue time line that does not square with experts’ shorter estimates, but could reflect a political strategy aimed at avoiding unmet expectations.

The mine disaster, which began with an underground collapse on 5 August and captured the world’s attention when the men were found alive 17 days later, presents both huge opportunities and risks for the billionaire-turned-politician who took office earlier this year.

“Pinera is gambling his presidency on this accident,” said Patricio Navia, a professor of Latin American studies at New York University. “Of course, he has to get them out now. It would be impossible for him to govern if the rescue operation fails.”

Officials at all levels, from the mining minister to Pinera, have vigorously rejected shorter rescue time lines. But when discussing their own projections, they add that they also are “exploring other options,” an apparent acknowledgement it could happen faster than they are saying.

In his speech Wednesday, Pinera said there is no chance the miners will be freed by Chile’s independence day celebrations, which begin on September 18, but added that the government is doing all it can “so we can celebrate Christmas and New Year’s” with them.

While no one claims the men could be rescued in weeks, the government’s time line is extremely conservative - twice as long as it should take, experts say.

“Four months? Never,” Eduardo Hurtado, a geologist on the team that drilled the first bore hole to make contact with the miners, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. “If there are no major mechanical problems, this can be done in two months, three at the most.”

The deep-drilling team’s recent experience carving a total of three bore holes to communicate with and deliver food to the miners will give it a head start, while any mechanical problems that come up with the drills can probably be solved in six hours or less, Hurtado said.

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