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Armed men set fire to Sri Lankan newspaper press


COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Armed men stormed a newspaper press in Sri Lanka’s former war zone early Saturday and set fire to printing machines and newspapers ready for distribution in the second attack on the paper this month, the publisher said.

E. Saravanapavan said three men with guns entered the press room of his Tamil-language Uthayan newspaper in northern Jaffna town and threatened and chased away workers and delivery men. They then shot at a control panel and set fire to the machines, newspapers and newsprint.

Attacks on media offices and workers have become increasingly common in Sri Lanka since the country’s civil war ended nearly four years ago, with reporters from minority groups and the majority Sinhala targeted.

Saravanapavan said he thought either the military or a paramilitary group supporting the government could be behind Saturday’s attack because the paper had recently reported extensively on the military taking over private land in northern Sri Lanka, a center of the war and an area populated mostly by minority ethnic Tamils.

The government, however, said the attack was orchestrated by the newspaper itself to embarrass the government.

"The setting on fire to the Uthayan newspaper printing office was an inside job to tarnish the government’s image," Lakshman Hulugalle, a government security spokesman, told a government website.

The government has in the past claimed that several journalists and critics who were abducted by suspected pro-government militia had actually hid themselves to embarrass the government and claim asylum overseas.

Earlier this month, a group attacked a regional office of the same newspaper in the town of Kilinochchi, a former headquarters of the Tamil Tiger rebels, who fought the quarter-century civil war to try to create an independent state for ethnic minority Tamils. The Sri Lankan military defeated the rebel group in 2009, killing all its commanders.

The newspaper has supported self-rule for Tamils, and its staff has repeatedly faced threats and violence, the most serious in 2006 when gunmen stormed its offices and killed two staffers.

In January, a man delivering Uthayan newspapers in Jaffna was attacked and his motorbike was set on fire.

Reporters in the capital, Colombo, have also been targets. A journalist for the independent Sunday Leader newspaper, which was critical of the government, was shot and seriously wounded in February. The editor of the newspaper was killed four years ago, one of at least 14 journalists who Amnesty International says have been killed on the Indian Ocean island since the beginning of 2006.

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