COLOMBO, SRI LANKA — HEAVY fighting has broken out in northern Sri Lanka as government troops attempt to penetrate to the center of Tamil resistance in Jaffna. Thousands of civilians are reported trapped in the combat area. Sri Lankan Air Force planes dropped leaflets over the northern peninsula of Jaffna last week, warning civilians to evacuate the area within 24 hours or take refuge in their homes. This was followed by heavy bombing and shelling.
Sri Lankan forces are attempting to get to an old Dutch fort in the center of Jaffna City, heartland of Sri Lanka's Tamil community and of the war against the government by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The Tigers, along with other Tamil groups, are fighting for a homeland independent of the Sinhalese majority. Tamils make up about 18 percent of the island's population.
About 200 Sri Lankan soldiers and policemen have been under siege in the fort for the past two and a half months. No food or medical supplies have reached them. The Army landed 2,000 troops on the tiny island of Kyats, just off the Jaffna coast, last Thursday and has captured the neighboring rebel-held island of Mandaitivu. An indefinite curfew has been imposed in the Jaffna area. ``We are shooting at anything that moves. Anyone out during curfew time is considered a terrorist and will be shot,'' an Army officer says. ``Many Tigers are hiding in towns and villages among civilians.''
Reports from the area, from which journalists are banned, say the Tamil Tigers are putting up stiff resistance. The Army claims that it is just two miles from the center of Jaffna.
Military officials in Colombo claim they have killed more than 250 Tamil rebels in the offensive so far. The Army says 100 were reported killed when a helicopter gunship fired on them as they were traveling on push-bikes and scooters just outside Jaffna.
The report is greeted with skepticism here by opposition parties because the rebels do not normally travel in such large numbers and Sri Lankan helicopters rarely hover so low. The Tigers' AK-47 assault rifles are able to shoot down helicopters from close range and the Sri Lankan Air Force, with barely 10 helicopters in its fleet, would suffer a severe loss of prestige if one of its helicopters was brought down.
The government claims that it is close to liberating the Dutch fort, while the Tigers say they are holding their ground. What is clear is that thousands of civilians are caught in the middle.
Tamil Tiger sources claim that most of those killed in the offensive so far are civilians. They also say the Air Force has bombed the Moolai hospital, eight miles outside Jaffna City. Villages and residential areas in the city have also reportedly been hit.
Soon after the start of the offensive, thousands of people fled across the Palk Strait to southern India, while thousands more hid in their homes, according to moderate Tamil politicians and foreign-aid workers. Many whose homes have been destroyed are crowded into refugee camps.
Others are trying to flee the fighting by heading toward southern Sri Lanka, but are unable to get out of the north because the Army has sealed off the area. Fuel is in short supply and available only to security forces.
``More than 3,500 Tamil civilians have been killed in the 10-week war,'' says Paradasingham Joseph, a moderate Tamil politician who does not back the Tigers. ``The government is not hitting the rebels, just killing innocent civilians.''
Sinhalese opposition parties have also condemned the government of Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa for ``indiscriminate'' aerial bombing of civilian areas. The Indian government has also expressed concern.
But Defense Minister Ranjan Wijeratne denies that civilians are being targeted in the offensive. ``Our forces are prepared to take on the Tigers and eliminate them. This is a war to the finish,'' he says.