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India's Troops Moving to Cut Tamil Supplies

October 19, 1987|RONE TEMPEST | Times Staff Writer

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — After a week of fierce fighting against outnumbered Tamil Tiger rebels, Indian troops were on the verge Sunday of encircling the northern city of Jaffna and cutting off Tiger supply lines on the Indian Ocean, officials said here and in New Delhi.

Indian forces captured the headquarters of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam at Kapay North, just outside of Jaffna, Reuters news agency reported from New Delhi, quoting state-owned All India Radio. Large quantities of arms and ammunition were seized at the headquarters, the report said.

Columns Push Forward

Columns of Indian troops, bolstered by at least 2,000 reinforcements Sunday, pushed toward each other from east and west along coastal roads, hoping to link in the next few days and sever the guerrillas' vital access to the sea, Indian spokesmen said.

"Eastern and western prongs are now poised to link up with the besieged Jaffna fort," an official spokesman told journalists in New Delhi.

"The Liberation Tigers . . . are trying desperately to move arms and ammunition into Jaffna by boat from caches in the Jaffna lagoon. Once the ground forces of the Indian peacekeeping force link up at the Jaffna fort, the (Tigers) will have no option but to surrender," the spokesman added.

Meanwhile, an Indian spokesman in Colombo explained that military progress in the conflict had been hampered by the presence of a large civilian population that prevents Indian troops from using heavy artillery and air power.

When the campaign in the Jaffna Peninsula began Oct. 10, both Indian and Sri Lankan officials predicted that Jaffna, the last Tiger stronghold on the island, would be in Indian hands by the end of the week.

On Sunday, however, most of the center of Jaffna city remained under Tiger control, and the Indians were faced with possibly several more days of combat. Already, the battle has cost them at least 450 dead and wounded. "This is not and cannot be a swift, lightning-type operation," the Indian spokesman here said.

Political Implications

Any prolonged delay in completing military operations in the Jaffna Peninsula could have political implications here, where the presence of an estimated 16,000 to 25,000 Indian troops fuels centuries-old fears of Indian annexation. A delay could also affect India, where the Tigers enjoy considerable support among the 55 million Tamil-speaking Indians in Tamil Nadu state.

The troops arrived in Sri Lanka under terms of a July 29 peace agreement signed by President Junius R. Jayewardene and Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in an effort to end a bloody, five-year ethnic war between Tamil separatists and government forces.

Initially, the Tigers, largest and most powerful of several separatist organizations, reluctantly accepted the agreement, which calls for creation of a semiautonomous Tamil-majority state in the north and east of the island.

On Oct. 5, however, 12 Tiger guerrillas commited suicide while they were in the custody of Sri Lankan authorities. Their action incited other Tigers to massacre more than 200 Sinhalese civilians in the eastern areas of Trincolomee and Batticaloa. This, in turn, rompted the Indians to begin their offensive against the Tigers.

The Indian military operation, India's first on foreign soil since the 1971 Bangladesh war, has been costly not only to Indian troops but to Tamil civilians on the island, many of whom have been driven from their homes and face food and water shortages in makeshift refugee camps.

By Sunday afternoon, Indian officials said that 102 Indians had been killed and about 350 wounded in battle.

Informed Sri Lankan sources, however, said the casualty count was considerably higher.

The Indian spokesman claimed Sunday that 527 Tamil Tigers have been killed and 254 taken prisoner in the week since the Indian campaign began.

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