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Fear stalks Sri Lanka's north after attack on paper

Written by: Staff

JAFFNA, Sri Lanka, May 3 (Reuters) People today stayed off the streets in Sri Lanka's north after gunmen killed two in an attack on a Tamil newspaper, prompting calls by journalists for greater protection.

Unidentified attackers stormed the office of Tamil daily ''Uthayan'', or ''Dawn'', in the northern town of Jaffna late yesterday, witnesses said, searching for a senior journalist, smashing computers and equipment and killing two staff.

More than 130 people have died in the last month in the bloodiest period by far since a 2002 ceasefire, sparking fear that the island's two-decade civil war might be about to restart.

''It's really shocking,'' said autorickshaw driver Raveendran Kumar, referring to the attack on the Tamil daily. ''I don't know who is behind this but, whoever it is, I beg of them to stop.'' The Sri Lankan government has condemned the attack on the newspaper, which is widely seen to have good contacts with Tamil Tiger rebels.

The army said it tried to stop the attackers fleeing, seized an AK-47 assault rifle and arrested two people. But some suspected the hand of military or army-linked groups.

''I wouldn't say it was the government but there are so many paramilitary groups and in the military there are also groups,'' said Sunanda Deshapriya, head of advocacy for the Sri Lanka Press Institute.

''The government hasn't done anything to stop attacks and killings of journalists in the last 20 years.'' Suspected Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) attacks on the military in early April sparked ethnic riots against Tamil civilians. Last week, the government launched air strikes after a suicide attack on the army headquarters.

KILLINGS, RUMOURS The capital Colombo remains jumpy. Vehicles approaching the business district are stopped and checked, and police commandos have joined private security guards at the entrance to high- profile economic and financial targets.

The army said the country was quiet, but rumours of bombs in Colombo and elsewhere circulated vigorously, briefly hitting the stock market.

Both sides say they still want to attend Norwegian-brokered talks in Switzerland, but the peace process is deadlocked over how to transport rebel commanders to a pre-talks meeting.

In the meantime, unsolved killings -- particularly of Tamil civilians -- continue in the north and east. The government has denied any involvement in the killings.

''Jaffna has become a graveyard,'' said 20-year-old student Suresh Rajaratnam. ''Every day, there is an average of three killings.'' REUTERS KD VV1539

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