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Sri Lanka 21 November 2007

Security forces accused of complicity in arson attack on Leader Publications

Reporters Without Borders condemns an arson attack early today on the printing press of the Sunday Leader media group, which is located in a high security area outside Colombo. The approximately 15 gunmen who staged the attack must have had support within the security forces, the press freedom organisation said.

"Armed men have once again attacked a independent news media in a high security area of the capital," Reporters Without Borders said. "It unfortunately shows that the press freedom enemies have accomplices within the security forces. By attacking the Leader Publications group, this gang wanted to silence one of the main sources of incisive criticism of the current government. We urge foreign diplomats to publicly express their solidarity with the group."

Leader Publications owns two English-language newspapers, The Sunday Leader and Morning Leader, and the Sinhalese-language weekly Irudina. Its printing press is located Ratmalana, a high-security zone adjoining a military airport outside the capital.

A gang consisting of both Sinhalese and Tamils stormed the premises early this morning, rounded up all of the 25 employees and, at gunpoint, forced them hand over their mobile phones. Then they doused the presses with petrol and set them on fire. They also set fire to the thousands of copies of today’s issue of the Morning Leader, which was about to be distributed. Firemen took an hour to put out the blaze.

A Sunday Leader journalist told Reporters Without Borders that the presses would be out of commission for several months. The group would have to use the services of a commercial printer in order to continue publishing, he said. The damage will also affect the Tamil daily Sudar Oli, which was printed on Leader Publications’ presses.

Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickramatunga described the attacked as a commando operation carried out on the government’s orders. Known for his investigations and critical editorials, Wickramatunga has been accused by ruling party parliamentarians of supporting the Tamil Tiger rebels. The government had planned to arrest him in late 2006 for revealing the construction of a luxurious presidential bunker in Colombo, but backed down for fear of triggering strong international criticism.

An armed group already set fire to newspapers at the Leader Publications printing press in October 2005, but employees put the fire out before the presses were damaged.

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