JAFFNA, Sri Lanka — Artillery and mortar fire rumbled in the distance near Jaffna University. Just outside the 300-year-old Dutch fort here, snipers fired single rounds from the top floors of gutted buildings. A few hundred yards north of the fort, Indian infantry and Tamil Tiger guerrillas blazed away at each other with automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.
Officers with the 20,000-man Indian peacekeeping force said they believe that the main fighting is over for control of Jaffna, the Tamil Tiger stronghold and the largest city in the far north of this island nation off the coast of India.
"We have them hemmed in now, and we are dealing with them," said Maj. Gen. Amerjit Singh Kalkat, chief of operations for the Indian Southern Command.
However, a brief, escorted, visit to Jaffna revealed a city still very much in the throes of urban guerrilla war. After two weeks of battle, the world's fourth-largest army has been unable to subdue an outnumbered guerrilla force, the fighting wing of an organization that calls itself the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which is fighting for a separate Tamil homeland in the northeast region of the country.
Heavy Toll on Troops
Casualties have been extremely high for the Indians. The official count is 160 dead, 544 wounded and 38 missing in action. Indian field officers, most with experience in two wars with Pakistan and various tribal insurgencies back home, said they were frustrated by the darting tactics of the Tigers, mostly teen-agers with no formal military training, and by the guerrillas' use of explosives, including Claymore anti-personnel mines.
"They were stopping us every place," said Brig. Manjit Singh, who led a slow-moving pincer drive by the army from west of the city to the old fort. "Every time they checked us, we lost a lot of men. When we tried to move our vehicles, we were hit with land mines."
"They fire and run, fire and run," Col. Tej Pratat Singh Brar said. He had led his battalion from the fort to link up with Manjit Singh's troops earlier this week.
"When we tried to follow, a third man is waiting in a building with a (explosive) wire and tries to blow us up."
No End in Sight
Because of such tactics, the powerful Indian army, supported by field artillery, tanks and armored personnel carriers, has lumbered like a giant Gulliver beset by sniping Lilliputians. A campaign that senior officers and diplomats had hoped to wrap up in a few days has dragged on with no definite end in sight.
"As soldiers, we don't give estimates," Kalkat said. "But we think it will end soon."
A quick end to the fighting is important because of possible domestic political backlash from India's first foreign military undertaking since the 1971 Bangladesh war and because a prolonged campaign here might alienate the local civilian population.
"I think the fighting has already taken too long," Neelan Tiruchelvam, a moderate Tamil leader, said. Tiruchelvam is a former member of Parliament who supports the Indo-Sri Lankan agreement of July 29 that brought Indian troops here to maintain peace between the minority Tamils and the Sinhalese majority.
"They (the Indians) are beginning to alienate large portions of the population," he added. "Their presence is having a radicalizing effect on the Jaffna community. I think the Tigers will be able to recruit more people as a result."
By Saturday, the Indians had still not been able to secure Jaffna University, site of the political headquarters for the Tigers, largest and most powerful of several Tamil separatist organizations on the island. Nor had they been able to get inside Nallur Temple, where an estimated 40,000 refugees from the war are awaiting rescue.
Gen. Kalkat said that Indian forces have tried unsuccessfully to air-drop food and medical supplies to refugees inside the temple but that gunfire from the Tigers when helicopters descended to 2,000 feet prevented them from doing so.
The Indian officers said that they still have been unable to capture a single senior guerrilla leader. And a Sri Lankan officer interviewed Saturday said that most of the main Tiger leaders have left the city, leaving behind "delayed, rear guard" units to cover their exit.
"The main groups have slipped away to fight again another day," he said.
Kalkat said the main difficulty in capturing the Tigers is their ability to blend quickly into the surrounding population.
"This is not a war we are fighting," the general said. "We are fighting with militant terrorists who are also civilians. They carry two sets of clothing which they change constantly. They can put on a lungi (sarong) and go on a bicycle and pick up another weapon at another place."