COLOMBO, Sri Lanka - A government minister and his bodyguards rampaged yesterday through the offices of a state television station, assaulting its news director before employees fought back and took them hostage for several hours, officials and witnesses said.

Press-freedom advocates demanded punishment for Labor Minister Mervyn Silva, who has repeatedly been accused of threatening reporters.

"This is not the first time Minister Silva did this," said Sunanda Deshapriya, an official with the Free Media Movement, a local media-rights group. "The government should take strict measures against him."

Silva's alleged attack and the employees' retaliation captivated the country as events unfolded throughout the day.

The violence began yesterday morning, when Silva and a group of his bodyguards entered the offices of the Rupavahini Corp. and attacked news director T.M.G. Chandrasekara for not broadcasting one of Silva's speeches, said Kanchana Marasinghe, a station employee.

In an interview shown later on Rupavahini's news station, Chandrasekara said that one of Silva's aides attacked him and ripped his shirt open while Silva threatened to destroy the station's offices if his speech was not aired.

Angry staffers quickly chased the attackers into the chairman's office and refused to let them out for three hours, as soldiers and police gathered outside. The standoff was broadcast live by Rupavahini.

Silva was eventually freed after publicly apologizing to the staff, and left escorted by police amid hoots and jeers from station employees. Television footage showed the minister covered in red ink and staffers stoning his car.

The government quickly condemned Silva's actions.