Sri Lanka's government promised yesterday to bring to justice assailants who gunned down two employees at a Tamil Tiger-linked newspaper, describing the brazen assault as an attack on freedom of expression.
Gunmen stormed the office of the independent newspaper on Tuesday in northern Sri Lanka and opened fire, killing two staffers and seriously wounding a third, the editor of the Uthayan newspaper said.
"The government considers this with utmost importance and believes this attack was intended to harm the government's image as a nation with freedom of expression and media independence," an official statement said yesterday.
"The government ... will take every possible step to bring the culprits to book," the statement said.
Dressed in black, the attackers broke into the office of the newspaper -- based in the northern town of Jaffna, 300km north of Colombo -- and began shooting.
Editor N. Vithyatharan said the gunmen demanded to see three reporters who managed to escape the office. He said the newspaper's editorial manager and a circulation assistant had died, and another employee was seriously wounded.
Uthayan is an independent newspaper, but is considered to have close links to Tamil Tiger rebels fighting for a separate homeland for the country's ethnic Tamil minority.
"I have no doubts that this is a work of armed groups working with the government security forces," Vithyatharan said, adding the reason for the attack may have been a cartoon the newspaper published on Monday depicting a former rebel leader prostrating himself before the president.
The person shown in the cartoon, Douglas Devananda, is now a government minister.
Tamil Tiger rebels accuse the government of using other armed Tamil groups to attack the guerrillas. The groups, which once fought alongside the Tigers for a separate state, gave up their struggle after a failed India-arranged peace accord in 1987.
The government has denied backing such groups.
President Mahinda Rajapakse, scheduled to address an international media freedom conference in Colombo yesterday, phoned the newspaper publisher and denied any government involvement in the attack, Vithyatharan said.
"His thinking was that the Tigers had done it ahead of his speech to embarrass him. But we clearly told him that the government should bear the responsibility," Vithyatharan said.
Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam rebels have fought the government since 1983 to create a separate nation for ethnic minority Tamils.