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Taming Tigers is only first step for India in Sri Lanka

When the Indian Army conquers Jaffna, as expected, India could face new roadblocks as tough as the Tamil rebels' defenses. India will have thorny problems in restoring its battered peace accord signed two months ago with Sri Lanka. With Tamil militants reportedly fleeing the besieged city to other parts of the island, an Indian victory is not likely to quash Sri Lanka's Tamil insurgency, analysts say.

``The country will probably have hit-and-run terrorist strikes for some time,'' an Asian diplomat says.

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There are also many political uncertainties, observers say. Overrunning Jaffna will drive out the main Tamil militant group, the Tigers, and leave a power gap in the predominantly Tamil north. But other Tamil extremist groups are waiting in the wings to take over leadership of the Tamil cause.

Sri Lankan officials say that these militant groups will play a major role in a new government in the north and east and have already been carrying on talks with Indian officials.

Tamil moderates would also be involved in a new government, though they have been discredited among many young Tamils.

Eliminating the Tigers' political power will not break the deadlock between the Tamils, who want a united homeland, and Sinhalese and Muslims who oppose a semi-autonomous Tamil province.

``The north and east merger remains the biggest problem of the whole accord,'' says political analyst Reggie Siriwardena.

Under the peace accord, an interim council is to be set up until a referendum can be held on whether to unite the north and east provinces. The Tigers opposed the referendum, because it is expected that most easterners would oppose a merger with the north. The east has a mix of Tamils, Sinhalese, and Muslims.

The rival militant groups are also not likely to give up their radical stance. In a Hindu temple here, Thambirajah Subathiram and 34 other Tamil militants are waiting out the battle in the north.

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The extremists were captured by the Sri Lankan Army during the four-year civil war and were just released and given amnesty under the peace accord. A rival of the Tigers, Mr. Subathiram says he will continue the fight for a Tamil homeland.

``Because of the problems facing the Tamil people, there should be a separate state where there would be a working class revolution,'' says the 28-year-old self-proclaimed Marxist.

With Indian casualties rising, India is likely to impose a tough peace. India launched its offensive Oct. 10 after the Tigers refused to surrender their arms.

With fierce fighting continuing in Jaffna, there seems little room for negotiations between the two sides. Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi says he will call off the military action and welcome the militants back into the ``political mainstream'' if they surrender unconditionally and disarm. The militants say they are fighting to the death.

Growing bitterness among Jaffna's Tamils could also make it more difficult for the Indian government to pick up the pieces of the peace accord. In the wake of the offensive, which has reportedly resulted in hundreds of civilian deaths, Mr. Gandhi will no longer have the same status in the eyes of Sri Lanka's Tamils.

``There is dismay and shock among the civilian population that looked to India as their protector,'' says Mr. Siriwardena. ``Now the situation has changed.''

The Indian capture of Jaffna will also not quiet the discontent that has fueled extremism among Sri Lankan youths. High unemployment, a rigid caste system, and estrangement from Sinhalese-dominated society have alienated young Tamils, observers say. Many were driven to extremism by Sri Lankan restrictions on jobs and education for ethnic minorities that effectively reduced the Tamils to second-class citizens. The government dealt another blow to Tamil pride when it made Sinhala the official language.

Tamil resentment erupted into sporadic violence, but the full-fledged insurgency was born in July 1983. The militant Tamils feel trapped by the rigid caste system. Mainly from the lower caste, the militants turned to extremism out of frustration for the restrictions imposed by their social betters.

The biggest obstacle to containing the militancy, officials say, is growing unemployment that is estimated in excess of 25 percent. Efforts to revitalize backward areas in the north and east have been stymied by the ethnic conflict.

``We can't isolate or antagonize these unemployed youth,'' says Ronnie de Mel, the finance minister. ``We must understand their problems and the feeling of helplessness of rural youth.''

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