82,000 civilians flee Sri Lanka war zone: minister

April 22, 2009 (AFP) – Nearly 82,000 civilians have escaped from the shrinking patch of territory still controlled by the Tamil Tiger rebels, defence spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella said Wednesday. He said 81,420 men, women and children were counted as they registered with security forces since fleeing the remaining rebel-held coastal jungle area Monday and Tuesday. He did not give an estimate for the number still trapped.

“Our priority is to get the civilians out,” said Rambukwella.

The exodus began Monday when the military punctured Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) defences at Puttumatalan, inside the government-designated “no-fire” zone where the last rebels are holed up.

The United Nations had estimated that there were 150,000 civilians in the rebel-held territory before Monday’s exodus, but the government had insisted that it was less than half.

The defence ministry gave Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and his fighters until Tuesday to surrender, but the rebels ignored the deadline and have continued to fight government forces.

Military officials said security forces exchanged fire with the rebels Tuesday and killed at least eight.