COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Several hundred thousand civilians have fled their homes for refugee centers in the northern Jaffna Peninsula as fighting between Indian army troops and Tamil Tiger guerrillas continued for the fifth straight day, Indian diplomats reported here Wednesday.
An Indian military advance on the city of Jaffna, the main stronghold of the Tiger guerrillas, appeared to slow down in heavy rains Wednesday. A senior Sri Lankan official was quoted by United Press International as saying that one of four Indian columns broke through fortified Tamil lines from the east through the town of Navatkuli, but the report was not confirmed by Indian officials.
Meanwhile, Indian military officials claim to have intercepted messages from Tiger leaders calling all guerrillas to Jaffna, setting the stage for a final stand against the 6,000 Indian troops on the peninsula by an estimated 2,500 Tigers.
As part of an effort to seal off the Jaffna Peninsula, the Indians said they doubled their naval patrol of the Palk Strait to prevent the flow of arms and men from Tiger camps in India. An unconfirmed report from Madras said the Indians had sunk four speedboats belonging to the Tiger rebels that they suspected of running guns.
The official death toll of Indian soldiers was revised to 57 for four days of fighting ending Tuesday. Indian spokeswoman Lakshmi Puri had no death figures for Wednesday but said overall Indian casualties had risen to 225. No new figures were available for Tamil Tiger casualties, last estimated by the Indians at about 200 dead.
However, several Tamil sources, including a minibus driver who returned to Colombo from Jaffna on Wednesday and who witnessed some of the early stages of the fighting, said that the Tiger losses were much lower than reported by the Indians.
"The boys (Tigers) told me they had only lost five, including one woman," said the driver, who asked not to be identified by name. He said the Tamil civilian population was attempting to remain neutral in the conflict.
"Women are giving the Indian soldiers food and water when they see them and Tigers food and water when they see them," he said.
375,000 Refugees Reported
Tamil civil authorities in Jaffna district told Indian military commanders that 375,000 refugees have congregated in four high school campuses designated by the Indians as safety zones.
Indian diplomats in Colombo interpreted the refugee flow as a sign that Tamil civilians are cooperating with the Indian effort to rout the Tigers, who are beloved by some of the population, particularly the young, and feared by others.
All of the campuses are located inside the central Jaffna area still controlled by the Tigers, the fighting wing of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam separatist organization. There has been no independent Indian confirmation of the refugee numbers by Indian military or Red Cross officials, the spokesman said.
Journalists have been banned from the Jaffna Peninsula by the Indian military authorities since fighting erupted there Saturday when Indian soldiers searching for weapons were attacked by the Tiger guerrillas.
Spokeswoman Puri said the Jaffna district government has emergency medical and food supplies left over from an Indian relief mission last summer, when the peninsula was under siege from Sri Lankan military forces.
"But we are facing some distribution problems," she said.
She stressed that Indian forces were not using aircraft to attack Tiger positions because of the increased likelihood of civilian casualties.
"Air power would have completely neutralized the Tigers," she said. "If we had ignored civilian casualties, the whole operation would have been finished in 72 hours."
However, the Indians have been using helicopters to transport troops and commandos. A helicopter commando drop Monday in the Urumpirai area of Jaffna resulted in heavy casualties to the Indian forces. According to several reports, as many as 30 Indian commandos died in the attack.
Puri said Indian officers were investigating reports of strafing by military aircraft Wednesday near Kokuvil in the Jaffna Peninsula. Indian aircraft were not used, she said, but it was possible that a Sri Lankan government helicopter, operating on a rogue mission, may have been involved.
Under terms of the July 29 peace agreement signed between Indian and Sri Lankan leaders, Sri Lankan forces were withdrawn from northern areas of the island and the 12,000-man Indian peacekeeping force installed in their place.
Five-Year Ethnic War
The peace agreement was aimed at stopping a bitter five-year ethnic war between the Tamil guerrillas and the Sri Lankan government in which more than 5,000 people have died.
The peace plan called for a political solution in which the Tigers and other Tamil separatist groups would be given a role in a semi-autonomous provincial government uniting majority Tamil areas in the north and the east.