Pios Foray responded in a dry monotone to questions about the recent late night gang attack on his struggling newspaper, The Tablet, Sierra Leone's only independent newspaper. "We suspect they were thugs in the pay of politicians," said Foray, 25. "We were supposed to be taught a lesson", he added. "They failed."

On the African continent, where newspapers and other information outlets are generally under strict government control, Foray's often feisty Tablet is one of several rare exceptions and a perpetual thorn in the side of Sierra Leonean President Siaka Stevens.

The Tablet's irreverant style guarantees an almost immediate sellout of its biweekly press run while the government-owned Daily Mail and the government party newspaper. We Yone, are relatively easy to come by on Freetown's streets.

All official political opposition wasoutlawed in Sierra Leone two years ago following a nationwide referendum conducted by Stevens' All People's Congress, the country's only legal party today. Stevens has said that a multiparty system would only exacerbate ethnic tensions and had confused traditional tribal rulers.

"In the absence of an opposition party [the government] is beginning to interpret The Tablet as an opposition," Foray said. "But we are just an independent newspaper."

The Tablet is operated out of a grimy, rundown, three-story building at 40 Rawdon Street in downtown Freetown. Diagonally across the street are the offices of the Daily Mail.

To get into the Tablet during the beginning of its 12:30 a.m. press run, you have to knock on a barred and boltedsteel gate that opens onto an alley leading to the building's rear entrance.At the open courtyard end of the alley, in a garage covered with a rusty,corrugated metal roof, is the paper's large, black, rebuilt 1965 German press.

In its mid-June edition, the Tablet ran a front-page story about the government arresting "hundreds" of potential troublemakers "for security reasons" and detaining them in Freetown's Pademba Road Prison. The arrests of vagrants, prostitutes, students "and at least one university professor," according to Foray, were made in preparation for Sierra Leone's hosting of the Organization of African Unity summit earlier this month.

Three nights after the article ran, at 2 a.m. on June 21, the paper's office was attacked by a gang of 20 men wearing straw hats and blue T-shirts, the paper subsequently reported. A late-arriving pressman caught outside the gate, Frank Kposowa, was severely beaten and later hospitalized in serious condition.

"I heard about the attack, but I don't know who motivated it," said President Stevens in an interview. "We do have some [All People's Congress] party people who get angry when they see people attacking [us] and go for bone-to-bone [street] fighting."

Stevens accused Tablet editor Foray of being the "tool" of a clandestine opposition and added that he is paid to attack the government by an uncle, Cyril P. Foray, whom Stevens fired as his foreign minister in the early 1970s.

Pios Foray acknowledged that The Tablet's offices were once the headquarters of the opposition Sierra Leone People's Party and the office for their now-defunct newspaper, The People, but denied the other charges made by Stevens.

The attackers, who could not get through the barred gate, allegedly hurled rocks through the paper's second-floor editorial office windows and climbed onto the roofs of adjoinng buildings to throw rocks at the working pressmen in the courtyard. They left after an hour and "then the police arrived," Foray said.

Another group of men went to his house looking for Foray and took away six of his friends when they could not find him. Foray said his friends were taken to the Lumley Beach area, near the OAU conference center, and beaten.Policemen were nearby, but did not intervene, Foray said.

"I am afraid for my own life," Foray said. "We can expect more trouble, and I suspect they will close our paper down," he added.

"The problem here," added Tablet columnist Ibrahim Kargbo, "is that the leadership does not believe in public forums to discuss problems." The Tablet is "just out to alert the government to its pitfalls or policies that are unpopular," Kargbo said.

The Tablet will not be shut down "during my time," responded Stevens. "I don't see any benefit from that."

Stevens denied that there are no forums for dissent under his government. "People can come and talk to me," he said. "You see, I grew up in the trade union movement where we sit down, drink palm wine and talk," he said.

"I am not hard to see, and I don't understand aloofness."