By Ranga Sirilal
COLOMBO (Reuters) - Masked gunmen threw grenades and destroyed the main studio of Sri Lanka's largest private broadcaster Tuesday, days after state media criticised it for coverage of a Tamil Tiger suicide blast.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa condemned the early morning attack on MBC Network's studios and ordered an investigation. The United States earlier demanded the perpetrators be arrested.
The assault near the capital Colombo by about 15 attackers knocked MBC Network's three TV and four radio stations off the air for several hours after the gunmen blew up the master control room, witnesses and station officials said.
Independent MBC has clashed with the government in the past over its coverage, and again over the weekend was criticised by state-run media for giving too much coverage to a Tamil Tiger suicide blast Friday after a major military victory.
"It's either that the citizens of Sri Lanka are able to drive around attacking institutions armed with weapons and grenades, or there is a hand behind it," MTV Channel head Cheevan Daniel told Reuters when asked who was responsible.
Mass Media and Information Minister Anura Priyadharshana Yapa, without saying who was responsible, said in a statement the attack was meant to divert attention from the military's successes and "bring the government into disrepute."
Press freedom groups say Sri Lanka is among the world's most dangerous countries for journalists, with detentions, assassinations and intimidation common against critics of both the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
MILITARY MOVES ON JAFFNA
The war has raised emotions on both sides, and diplomats say hardline elements of the security forces and the LTTE are involved in intimidation and attacks on journalists and critics.
"The U.S. deplores this latest in a series of criminal attacks on the independent media in Sri Lanka," said a U.S. embassy statement on Tuesday's bombing.
Friday, someone threw a petrol bomb at the studios. That followed coverage of an LTTE suicide blast at air force headquarters in Colombo which killed three airmen.
The bombing was apparently the Tigers' answer to the army's announcement Friday of the capture of Kilinochchi, the northern city the separatist group had established as their self-proclaimed capital in the latter stages of the 25-year war.
Despite dealing that crushing blow to the Tigers, the military has given no quarter in its offensive.
Tuesday, troops from the north and south began squeezing the 12 km-long (7 mile) area held by the LTTE on the Jaffna Peninsula's neck, no more than 6 km wide and split by a lagoon.
The army controls the rest, and since capturing Kilinochchi has moved to just south of Elephant Pass, the gateway to Jaffna and site of a humiliating army loss in 2000 to the Tigers.
"We have gone forward about 600 metres (1,970 ft) today afternoon, and with minor resistance captured the first LTTE defence line in Muhamalai-Kilali," military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said. That is on the northern front.
Soldiers were also beginning to assault Elephant Pass in the south of the LTTE-held area, he said. Once that is cleared, a mechanised infantry division on Jaffna will be able to move down.
(Writing and additional reporting by Bryson Hull; Editing by Jerry Norton)