COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Indian infantry, sometimes using tanks to blast through rebel bunkers, inched slowly into the northern city of Jaffna from four directions Tuesday, hoping to capture the last stronghold of Tamil Tiger guerrillas by the weekend, Indian officials said here.
Indian soldiers continue to face stiff resistance from the outnumbered but fiercely determined rebels, members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam separatist organization who take a vow to commit suicide by swallowing cyanide capsules rather than be captured alive.
However, in its first foreign military campaign since its 1971 victory over Pakistan, India appeared to be within days of accomplishing what it had warned the Sri Lankan military never to do in its four-year ethnic war with the Tamil rebels: seize Jaffna and rout the Tigers.
"They expect to finish their campaign by the weekend," an informed Sri Lankan source said Tuesday night.
The conquest, if it occurs, will come at a heavy cost in life to Indian troops, Tamil rebels and, almost certainly, the Tamil civilians living in the city of 120,000 at the northern tip of this island nation.
One senior Sri Lankan official, who asked not to be further identified, estimated that civilian deaths may reach four figures.
In the 24 hours beginning Monday afternoon, Indian spokeswoman Lakshmi Puri said, eight Indian soldiers were killed and 62 wounded. The total after four days of house-to-house fighting, she said, was 27 dead and 141 wounded.
However, a senior Sri Lankan official said he was told by Indian authorities that Indian casualties were considerably higher: 59 dead and 200 wounded. Independent verification of casualty figures is difficult since India has banned journalists from the battle areas.
On the Tamil side, officials estimated the number of dead at more than 200, with 40 more deaths in the fighting Tuesday.
To avoid civilian casualties, Puri said, Indian forces have refrained from using air power. "No bombing. No strafing. No helicopter gunships," she said. The Indian army, fourth largest in the world, has many aircraft ranging from Soviet-made MIG-27 fighters to MI-24 Hind helicopter gunships.
"Our casualties would have been much less if we had used this option," Puri said.
Indians allege that Tiger guerrillas "forced" Tamil civilians in Jaffna to help carry weapons and ammunition and remove bodies from battle sites. As a result, an Indian official said, some civilians may have inadvertently been killed and perhaps even classified as rebel casualties.
One of the main goals of the Indian campaign is to capture senior Tiger commander Velupillai Prabakaran. Prabakaran has made appeals to Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and his supporters across the Palk Strait in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu to stop the Indian military action.
Late Tuesday night, a man who identified himself as a member of a Tiger fighting group telephoned a Tamil-speaking reporter in Colombo and said Tiger leader Prabakaran was surrounded by 500 Indian troops in Jaffna.
The caller said he had learned of the Prabakaran siege by monitoring Tiger radio broadcasts. Independent confirmation was not possible Tuesday night.
Fighting was concentrated in the Jaffna Peninsula on Tuesday. In the east, Indian troops mopped up after a fierce battle that raged 10 hours in the Morakotachenai jungle area 14 miles west of Batticaloa.
On Tuesday, however, the focus was on the city of Jaffna, capital of the minority Tamil population and center of Tamil pride on the island. Tamils make up about 18% of the 16 million people in this country, formerly known as Ceylon.
For the last four years, Tamil rebels have battled the majority Sinhalese Buddhist population for an independent Tamil homeland to be called Eelam. Last spring, the Tamil rebels began to lose ground to an improved Sri Lankan military, bolstered by equipment bought from Israel and South Africa, among other countries.
As the Sri Lankan military appeared ready to move into Jaffna in June, the Indian government intervened, warning that an attack would result in thousands of civilian deaths. The Indians airlifted food and medical supplies to the besieged Tamil population and set the stage for the peace agreement signed July 29 by Indian and Sri Lankan leaders.
Protectors Now Invaders
At the time, Indians were celebrated as heroes and protectors by the Jaffna Tamils, who believed that they had saved the city from a bloody invasion. Now the Indians find themselves the invaders, taking the place of the Sri Lankan forces that have been withdrawn.
Western military experts interviewed Tuesday in Colombo estimated that the well-armed Indian soldiers here, with the world's fourth largest army and a sophisticated air force in reserve, should prevail "in a matter of days" over the fierce contingent of Tamil Tigers they are fighting. The Indians are fielding tanks and armored personnel carriers against the Tigers' small arms, plastic explosives and homemade mortars.