BATTICALOA, SRI LANKA -- Hundreds of ethnic Tamil youths in this isolated, civil war-torn district of northeastern Sri Lanka have disappeared in recent months after being taken into custody by government security forces, according to a registry compiled by Christian missionaries and civic leaders here.

Relatives of the missing Tamils -- exactly 2,009, according to the registry -- claim that the youths were taken from refugee camps, movie houses and even hospital beds and then executed by security forces or pro-government "death squads" that roam the region in jeeps and trucks. Relief workers here say they believe some of the youths may have ended up on the piles of burning bodies periodically seen along roadsides here this winter.

Army and government officials have denied executing any Tamil detainees, but at the same time they are unable to account for the 2,009 missing youths. They say some may have been killed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam {Homeland}, a violent guerrilla force fighting to create a separate Tamil state in northeastern Sri Lanka.

But the rash of disappearances in this coastal city of 50,000 represents just one aspect of the brutality and terror in Tamil areas of this divided island nation. Since last June, after years of desultory violence and open warfare involving Sri Lanka's ethnic Tamil minority and Sinhalese majority -- and radical factions within both -- the Sinhalese-dominated government has been trying to crush the Tamil Tigers once and for all. While the offensive has had little apparent success in breaking the Tigers' power in the region, it has left at least 4,000 dead and up to a million refugees.

The guerrillas, who started the latest round of fighting, have been implicated in machine-gun massacres of unarmed noncombatants and mass executions of policemen captured at remote outposts. The government has been accused of killing dozens of people by dropping gasoline- and rubber-filled "barrel bombs" on civilian areas. Fabricated from oil drums and detonated with dynamite, the barrel bombs explode with horrific effect, spraying burning rubber that sticks to skin.

Government officials say the tiny Sri Lankan air force is under orders to bomb only guerrilla targets but that some noncombatant casualties are inevitable. "No instructions had been given to carry out indiscriminate bombing. We have asked pilots to be careful and go only for identified targets," said Sri Lankan Defense Minister Ranjan Wijeratne. "We are at war, remember that," Wijeratne added. "We are not playing marbles. There may have been one or two accidental cases."

Sri Lankan officials say they are attempting to root out and finally smash the Tamil Tigers, a tightly disciplined guerrilla force that from 1987 to 1989 fought off more than 70,000 Indian army troops brought in to impose peace on the island. The thousands of disappearances in Batticaloa and other Tamil regions suggest that in attempting to destroy the guerrillas, the government may be following the same bloody strategy it used against the Maoist Peoples Liberation Front -- known by its Sinhalese initials as JVP -- which bid for power in the south in 1988 and 1989.

By unleashing paramilitary death squads in JVP areas, executing an estimated 20,000 young Sinhalese suspects and burning their bodies by roadsides to frighten sympathizers, the government crushed the JVP within two years. The brutal killings have deeply scarred Sri Lanka, however, leaving some to wonder whether the death squads will ever be disbanded.

"What we face now is the attitude that we can get rid of the Tigers by killing everything that might possibly be a Tiger or making them disappear," said the Rev. Harry Miller, a Jesuit priest from New Orleans who has worked in Batticaloa since Sri Lanka won independence in 1948. "This is the worst. It's never been as bad as it has been in the last six months."

In August, another American priest who had been here more than four decades disappeared while riding a bicycle north of Batticaloa. Miller said he suspects government forces are responsible, but no trace of the priest has been found.

Following months of inquiries by the International Red Cross on behalf of relatives of the missing Tamils, the army has permitted interviews with just 45 detainees. In correspondence with other organizations, the army says it holds only a few dozen Tamils, not the hundreds that Tamil families say were taken into custody. One senior government official who asked not to be identified said he believes that security forces and death squads in and around Batticaloa were deliberately killing large numbers of young Tamils in an effort to break the Tigers' web of support among Tamil civilians.

But whatever the government strategy, the battle-hardened Tigers remain in control of much of the northeast, running de facto local governments in some areas while ambushing security forces at will from remote jungle camps.

The government has claimed victory in Sri Lanka's Eastern Province because it holds the cities of Batticaloa and Trincomalee, and it is now attempting to resettle tens of thousands of refugees in nearby areas nominally under its control. But many refugees interviewed recently sounded reluctant to go home, saying they fear both sides in the war. More than a dozen families interviewed at three refugee camps said that while the government is pressing them to return to their villages, their houses have been demolished in the fighting and they have no money to rebuild.

Indeed, the army's hold on the region appears more tenuous than the government claims. Soldiers guard roads from heavily fortified bunkers and only during daylight hours. At night, they said, they hide in the jungle while Tamil guerrillas travel freely.

Helicopters continue to strafe the region, and there are periodic clashes in Batticaloa itself. At the city's only functioning guest house, there is a bullet hole in the dining room window and pock marks on the interior walls. The manager said the damage was the result of random gunfire two weeks ago.

But while it tries to resettle displaced people in the east, the government has been encouraging Tamil villagers in the far north to move out of the area into refugee camps. The tactic appears intended to deprive the Tigers of their civilian base of support around the northern port of Jaffna while the military conducts stepped-up anti-guerrilla operations in the region. The government also has cut off some medicines and all fuels to the area and shut down the road to Jaffna, but at the same time it has permitted food supplies to reach Tamils in the city.

Some Tamils argue that by unleashing death squads and bombing civilian areas, the government may win some battles against the guerrillas but will lose the larger campaign to bring Sri Lanka's Tamil minority back within the government fold. "The impact of that kind of destruction is enormous in terms of the bitterness it creates," said Neelan Tiruchelvan, a Tamil who is director of Sri Lanka's Law and Society association. "You are creating a society that may become totally irreconcilable to the rest of Sri Lanka."