COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Indian troops, stalled for the last two days in their assault on the Tamil Tiger guerrilla stronghold of Jaffna in the north, suffered another setback Thursday when a land mine exploded under a troop convoy in the eastern region, killing 20 soldiers.
The remote-controlled explosion on the road between Batticaloa and Eravu raised the official death toll for Indian forces to 79, with more than 250 wounded and 17 missing, since fighting erupted Saturday, according to a spokesman for the Indian government in Colombo.
However, a senior Sri Lankan official said 108 soldiers of the 14,000-member Indian peacekeeping force on the island have died in only five days of their campaign against guerrillas from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam separatist organization.
Indian officials Thursday said that 380 Tamil Tigers, more than one-tenth of the Tiger fighting force, have been killed and more than 100 have been arrested.
Despite these reported Tamil losses, Indian troops in Jaffna, the main Tiger stronghold in the north, made little progress Thursday in their effort to win control of the city from the guerrillas, many of whom are apparently holed up in bunkers connected by tunnels.
"These are Vietnam-style bunkers," said a Western diplomat in Colombo who is familiar with the Tiger defenses. "They usually have a (Hindu) temple at the crossroads that is the strongpoint, with communication trenches radiating out for as much as 3,000 yards."
The 6,000 Indian troops on the Jaffna Peninsula are advancing from four directions on the city. A spokesman said the Indians control an old fort on the city's western edge and have advanced within a mile of the city center from the east.
Indian troops have also moved a short distance along the Kankesanturai Road from the north, overrunning Tiger positions in Chunnakam, about four miles from the city center. However, they have bogged down in the key Urumpirai area east of Chunnakam.
Sri Lankan military sources said Urumpirai is where Tiger commander Velupillai Prabakaran is holed up. It is also where an Indian helicopter-borne commando attack was ambushed Tuesday, resulting in as many as 30 deaths.
The Indian spokesman Thursday explained the slow movement of Indian forces by saying they were involved in a "consolidation exercise." Independent corroboration of Indian claims is difficult. Journalists have been banned by the Indians from the battle areas.