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Indian Army hold on Sri Lankan rebel base is tenuous at best. As general boasts, gunfire sounds nearby

The battle for Jaffna is over, sort of. After two months of fierce fighting, India says it has the upper hand in this north Sri Lankan base of Tamil separatists. Officials claim that last Saturday they broke the stronghold from which the militants, called the Tamil Tigers, have run their guerrilla war against the Sri Lankan government for four years.

But, with the shooting continuing, India's hold here seems tenuous at best.

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``The end of Jaffna does not mean the end of the Tigers,'' said a local political leader with close ties to the militants. ``The Indians are capturing a shadow.''

During a visit by Western journalists to Jaffna earlier this week, firing of heavy artillery and machine-gun fire could be heard less than a few miles away. A cloud of billowy smoke rose above a distant neighborhood where Indian officials say that militants are setting off ammunition dumps. In front of the Jaffna railroad station painted with slogans against Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, soldiers stand guard in battle stance.

Brig. Gen. Manjit Singh boasted about Indian Army victories from the ramparts of the old Dutch fort in the center of town.

``No firing and not even sniping are heard,'' said General Singh as a burst of gunfire broke the afternoon quiet over the lagoon and sand dunes nearby.

The fight pitted the world's fourth largest Army, trained in conventional war tactics, against a disciplined guerrilla band, which at one time was armed and trained by the Indian government.

More than 800 Indians have died or been injured in the fighting. Indian officials say that more than 500 Tamil Tigers, about one-fifth of the total force, have been killed. The Tigers say their losses are only 60. Indian troops arrived in Sri Lanka in August to disarm the militants and enforce a peace accord signed by India and Sri Lanka.

Indian troops hold major landmarks here, but officials admit the Tamil rebels are nipping at their heels. In a bid to escape and retrench, Tamil militant forces snipe at Indian soldiers, set off booby-trapped land mines, or spray machine-gun fire from rooftops.

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Military officers say that the Tiger's leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, and other top leaders have abandoned their garb for local sarongs and sandals, and have slipped out of the city. A Tiger flag still flies from the local water tower.

India is locked in a propaganda battle with the militants, a conflict as tough as the military fight waged since India cracked down on the Tamil extremists who refused to comply with the peace accord. The Indian government, until recently, would not allow journalists into the area. They admit civilian casualties are high, but will not disclose numbers.

In recent days, the Tamils have unleashed a barrage of accusations. The militants charged Indian troops have indiscriminately bombed civilian areas, killed hospital patients, and raped young Tamil women. Indian military officials say troops have taken care not to harm civilians and say the militants are using Jaffna residents as shields in battle.

In St. Mary Our Lady of Refuge Catholic church, more than 1,500 people have sought safety from the fighting. In general they accuse Indian troops of heavy bombing, looting, and assaulting many of the more than 100,000 refugees here.

``The situation is very bad. Many refugees are dying,'' said the Rev. Jeeva Paul. ``I don't think the Indian government can solve our problems. They have been shelling worse than the Sri Lankan government has done in the past.''

However, not all the sentiment among the refugees is anti-Indian. R. Vijaykumar, who sleeps with his family in a church pew, says he does not favor the Tigers. Many refugees regard them as local heroes.

``The Tigers have missed the boat. They have thrown away the chance given by the Indian government,'' he said. ``We hate the Tigers.''

Just up the road, pockmarked by mortar fire and lined with burned-out buildings, Cooramasami Thangaradnam, lies in a hospital bed with her right leg amputated. She says she was caught in shelling by Indian forces after militants massacred 30 Indian paratroopers.

``I saw Indian troops moving up the road, and out of fear, I ran into my house,'' the woman recalled. ``That was when the shells hit me.''

Beset with heavy combat losses, Indian military officials bristle at the charges of atrocities. ``When I hear things like that,'' a senior official said, ``I get so mad I could just shoot people.''

Indian officials say they hope the public bitterness will die away with the fighting. They admit Indian troops will have to skirmish with the militants for some time in outlying areas, but hope life in Jaffna will soon return to normal.

``Once people feel that the Indian troops will remain and will look after them,'' said Maj. Gen. A. S. Kalkat, chief of the Indian forces, ``then this opposition will go away.''

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