Jaffna residents trapped in siege

The besieged city of Jaffna has become a desperate battleground where tens of thousands of residents are trapped by vicious fighting between the Indian Army and Tamil militants. Red Cross leaders in the city have called for aid, say Tamil sources in Colombo, and paint a bleak picture of devastation. Food is scarce and medical supplies are short. Electricity is out, sanitation has broken down, and many buildings have been flattened in firing by heavy guns.

About 375,000 people, half the population of the north-coast area, have fled to a handful of schools and temples for shelter, Indian officials estimate. They charge that 150,000 people are being held ``hostage'' by Tamil militants battling Indian troops at the city limits.

``This is a complete state of war,'' says a moderate Tamil politician in Colombo. After six days of warfare, the Indian Army has yet to puncture Tamil defenses in Jaffna city and faces widening attacks elsewhere on the island. The militants, part of a powerful group called the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, have rejected the peace pact signed last July by Sri Lanka and neighboring India to end a four-year civil war. The extremists say they want their own homeland, called Tamil Eelam, in the north and east of this tropical country.

But the disciplined and heavily armed Tamil Tigers are tough foes for the Indian forces, which include Gurkhas and other elite corps. Losses on both sides have been ``enormous,'' military sources say, for an operation of this size.

The 12,000-member force (6,000 fighting in Jaffna) has lost 79 men and 17 others have been reported missing, according to the Indian government, although many believe the number of deaths is much higher. About 262 Indians have been injured.

Indian officials in Colombo claim that 380 Tigers have died in the fierce fighting, out of a fighting force estimated at 2,500.

Civilian casualties are reportedly mounting in the Tamils' Jaffna stronghold.

Indian officials say there are plentiful food stocks near the densely populated city, which has been heavily mined by the militants. But food cannot be distributed because truck owners refuse to drive through the heavily mined streets.

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