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Huge Japan Police Raid on Sect Finds Many Unconscious : Asia: Operation by officers with gas masks and chemical neutralizers follows lethal subway attack. Officials say members of group were malnourished.

March 22, 1995|TERESA WATANABE and DAVID HOLLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

TOKYO — About 50 people, many of them unconscious, were found lying on a floor when police raided a rural center of a secretive religious group early today, just two days after a deadly toxin attack terrorized Tokyo subway riders, authorities said.

The 50 seriously ill people were among more than 100 religious followers who apparently had been fasting for nearly a week, police said.

Police officially linked the dawn raids on 25 or so offices of the Aum Supreme Truth group to alleged kidnapings. But many of the 2,500 police officers involved were equipped with gas masks, chemical neutralizers and even a few canaries carried to provide early warning of possible poison gas.

The religious group has become a focus of suspicion in the Monday attack involving sarin nerve gas, which killed 10 and afflicted more than 4,700 morning commuters.

No poison gas was detected at the raided site, police said. But Kyodo News Service reported that officers found several dozen bottles that apparently contained the kind of solvent used with sarin in Monday's attack.

"About 50 people at Aum Supreme Truth's facilities in Kamikuishiki village were found in a comatose state. They are apparently suffering from malnutrition," the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department said, without elaboration.

Television reporters on the scene said that at least six people had been hospitalized in critical condition.

Police also announced that four members of the sect were arrested today in connection with a kidnaping incident. They did not immediately provide details. But other reports said the arrests were in connection with the 50 people found in weakened condition.

Fingerprints were also found linking a member of the sect with a different kidnaping incident, the Feb. 28 abduction of Kiyoshi Kariya, police said.

Last year, a sarin-like substance was found around the religious group's Kamikuishiki compound in Yamanashi prefecture west of Tokyo after neighbors complained of headaches and irritated eyes. The group, however, has denied involvement, and members said they were being framed by government authorities.

As jittery commuters returned to the subways in full force today after Tuesday's Spring Equinox, a national holiday, there were still no hard facts about who committed the unprecedented act of chemical terrorism against a civilian population.

One suspect reportedly remained under guard at a Tokyo hospital, where he was taken after being seen kicking a container emitting fumes from a subway car to the platform. But he is still too ill to be interrogated, media reports said.

In an intensive investigation mobilizing more than 300 detectives, police pursued at least 30 other leads from callers who said they saw people leaving suspicious packages on the three subway lines involved. Police also took fingerprints from five subway cars on three lines.

In what authorities believe may have been a trial run for this week's attack, seven people were killed in June and more than 200 afflicted when sarin was released in a neighborhood in the Nagano prefecture northwest of Tokyo.

Speculation continued to grow in the Japanese press that the attack, centered on the government nerve center of Kasumigaseki, was aimed at Japan's bureaucrats. The elite corps of government officials has come under growing public attack for arrogance and irresponsibility.

Media analysts noted that five packages--boxes and bottles wrapped in newspapers leaking the sarin--were placed in trains on three subway lines all scheduled to arrive at Kasumigaseki within four minutes of each other, from 8:09 to 8:13 a.m. The morning traffic peak is 8:20 a.m. "Is this a coincidence or was this the target?" asked Hiroshi Kume, newscaster for TV Asahi.

The Aum Supreme Truth group had clashed with police the day before the attack, when three members were arrested for allegedly kidnaping Kariya, whose age has been given as either 68 or 69. Kariya reportedly had tried to free his sister from the group when he disappeared last month.

Kazuo Kawakami, former head of the Tokyo prosecutor's special investigations department, asserted on Japanese television that the police investigation also was linked to the sarin incidents.

Strange smells have been reported drifting out of the group's Tokyo office, and members were seen removing truckloads of unidentified material covered with vinyl sheeting this week, Japanese television has reported.

The group, which practices forms of Buddhism and yoga, is criticized as a radical cult that confiscates members' assets and forbids contact with friends and family. It claims 10,000 members in Japan and 20,000 in Russia.

Russia's Justice Ministry banned Aum Supreme Truth from public activity in July amid rising concern that foreign cults were flourishing in the anarchic post-Soviet atmosphere. The ministry canceled the group's registration after it discovered that eight of the 11 signatures of founding members were forged.

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