COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — A Tamil Tiger rebel leader appealed Sunday to Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi of India to halt Indian army attacks against rebel positions as casualties mounted in the second day of intense fighting in the northern tip of this island nation.
In a message to Gandhi made public here, the leader of the largest, most active Tamil separatist fighting group, Velupillai Prabakaran of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, pleaded with the Indian leader to "instruct the Indian peacekeeping force to halt its offensive immediately to prevent loss of life."
Sri Lankan government television reported that 120 Tamil rebels have been killed and 112 captured in an Indian offensive ordered after Tiger rebels massacred more than 150 Sinhalese last week. More conservatively, Indian authorities said that 60 Tamil Tigers and 10 Indian soldiers had been killed in two days of fighting concentrated in Jaffna, the principal northern city and the main stronghold of the Tigers.
As fierce fighting spread through Jaffna, authorities urged Tamil civilians to evacuate their homes and gather at three high school campuses for protection.
Sri Lanka military sources said that Indian army and paramilitary troops--part of a 12,000-member peacekeeping force brought here under terms of a July accord between Gandhi and President Junius R. Jayewardene--used Soviet-made BMP-72 armored personnel carriers with mounted machine guns to attack rebel positions.
The rebels fired rocket-propelled grenades into the Indian positions, sometimes using civilian populations as a screen, the sources said. Spokesmen for the Tamil Tigers reported heavy casualties.
In his message to Gandhi, Prabakaran, believed to be in hiding in Jaffna, said the offensive "has caused large-scale casualties in Jaffna, and India should bear responsibility for such a grave consequence."
Reporters were barred by Indian authorities from traveling to the Jaffna Peninsula on Sunday.
The weekend combat marked the first time since the Bangladesh war of 1971 that Indian forces, part of the world's fourth largest army, have fought beyond their own frontiers. As recently as two weeks ago, Indian officials had hoped that a political solution could be completed for the five-year conflict between Tamil rebels, who seek the creation of an independent Tamil state, and the Sri Lankan government.
The Tamils, comprising 16% of the island's population of 16 million, say they have suffered years of discrimination at the hands of the majority Sinhalese, who control most government institutions, including the army.
The July 29 peace agreement between Gandhi and Jayewardene, with India acting as a guarantor, called for creation of a semi-autonomous province uniting majority Tamil areas in the northern and eastern parts of the island.
Negotiations Break Down
However, negotiations with the Tamil Tigers, strongest of the five main fighting groups, broke down over details of a 12-member interim council to govern the new province. The Tigers were to have seven members on the council, giving them an important political role.
Indian forces moved Saturday against Tiger positions in Jaffna and began house to house searches for weapons in Trincomalee and Batticaloa. So far, more than 200 Tamil Tigers have been arrested, according to Indian sources.
Most observers, including Western diplomats interviewed Sunday, feel the Indian military action effectively bars the Tigers from any future role in a political settlement to the ethnic conflict, which has claimed more than 5,000 lives in recent years and reduced this one-time tourist paradise, formerly known as Ceylon, to near bankruptcy.
In a television speech Sunday, President Jayewardene held out hopes that the peace plan can still be implemented without the Tigers.
He called the agreement, which greatly enlarges Indian involvement in Sri Lankan affairs, a "tender plant that needs to be nurtured."
In the same speech, however, Jayewardene, 80, said that he has ordered Sri Lankan troops to return to Sinhalese areas in the eastern province in what appears to be a clear violation of the peace agreement, which placed the areas under control of the Indian army.