COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, May 16--It's been called India's Vietnam. And as Sri Lanka's civil war continues to escalate off India's southern coast, the 17-year conflict threatens to draw in its larger neighbor once again.

For the Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Elam (LTTE), the tiny Jaffna Peninsula at the tip of the teardrop-shaped island symbolizes the collective desire for an ethnic homeland. The mainly Hindu Tamils say they are fighting discrimination by the majority Buddhist Sinhalese. United since British colonial rule, tensions between them increased after independence in 1948.

In the past month, LTTE fighters have fought Sri Lankan troops to come closer to taking Jaffna than they've been since losing the stronghold to the government five years ago.

In April, the LTTE took the garrison of Elephant Pass, which links the Jaffna Peninsula with the rest of Sri Lanka. Now the city of Jaffna itself appears ready to fall.

The last three phone lines to Jaffna from the capital, Colombo, were cut by Sri Lankan authorities days ago to enforce a news blackout imposed May 4. A Public Security Act is in force, which allows the government to seize property and ban demonstrations.

Aid workers contacted by satellite phone say the situation looks "very bleak," as between 2,000 and 5,000 highly motivated Tamil Tigers are overwhelming the 25,000 to 40,000 Sri Lankan forces who reportedly have little offensive capacity and the highest desertion rate in the world.

Observers in Colombo say Tiger artillery fire has surprised Sri Lanka's forces, using "global positioning system" (GPS) technology to hit their targets. "Militarily we have lost everything we were going to give away in negotiations (with the Tigers)," says a senior Sri Lankan political figure in Colombo.

Just across the water from Jaffna lies India's state of Tamil Nadu, whose inhabitants share ethnic and religious ties with Sri Lanka's Tamils. Tamil Nadu, the size of Florida, is home to about 55 million people, and Jaffna is closer to Tamil Nadu than Cuba is to Florida: Already, civilians fleeing the peninsula are crossing the Palk Strait to reach Tamil Nadu.

"Tamil nationalism is very strong," says Pamanabhan Ranganath Chari, director of the Institute of Peace and Conflict studies in New Delhi, who is a Tamil.

"Apart from the fact that the quarrel (in Sri Lanka) is between two groups of settlers, both of whom originated from India many hundreds of years ago, the fact is that the Tamils still have very strong...ties with their brethren in Sri Lanka. People from northern India and New Delhi can't really understand the strong Tamil bond."

In fact, earlier in the conflict, New Delhi had given support to Tamil militants, under what was often described as a misguided policy. Former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi believed that it was in India's interest to show solidarity with the ethnic Tamils.

But during the government of her son Rajiv Gandhi, an accord was signed in 1987 under which a 6,000-strong Army contingent (the Indian Peace Keeping Force) provided protection for civilians in Jaffna. The IPKF faced guerrilla fighters--some of them barely in their teens--in a densely populated urban area already fortified and extensively land-mined. Their problems were complicated by the fact that it was impossible to distinguish between the Tigers and the Tamil civilians.

Public opinion in India turned against the government and 1,500 soldiers died before Indian troops pulled out in 1990. Prospects for further Indian involvement withered when Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in southern India in 1991, allegedly by a female LTTE suicide bomber.

India doesn't want a 1987 reprise. Nor can it ignore the powerful Tamil parties in its governing coalition. Delhi-based political analyst Mahesh Rangarajan says that if India decides to help in Sri Lanka and if Tamil civilians are killed in the process, Tamils may pull out of India's government and cause its collapse.

On the other hand, after nuclear tests last year and President Clinton's visit this March, India finds its higher profile heightening awareness of its regional influence. To ignore Sri Lanka's plight might be viewed as an abdication of responsibility at a time when it is lobbying hard for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.

India has scotched any speculation that it will give military assistance to the Sri Lankan Army. Even a delegation of Sri Lanka's Buddhist monks, who have historically opposed Indian involvement, petitioned the Indian high commissioner to Sri Lanka for military help.

But India has said that it is ready to mediate between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE if approached by both sides. Norwegian facilitation began slowly earlier this year with both government and LTTE acceptance. And a handful of Western countries have also made the offer to mediate, if Sri Lanka and the LTTE both come to the table.

For her part, Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga has stuck to a strategy that depends on defeating the LTTE militarily, while working with her political opposition to devolve power to Tamil regions in the north and east. But with politicians in the central government eyeing elections scheduled in August and the LTTE gaining territory, they so far seem unwilling to give up control.

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