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Police Seize Toxic Chemicals in Raid on Japanese Sect : Asia: Sweep yields equipment that could be used to produce gas that killed 10 on Tokyo subways. Four arrested for illegal confinement, fifth held after chase.

March 23, 1995|TERESA WATANABE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — Japanese police, seizing $7.9 million in cash and 22 pounds of gold, discovered a huge cache of toxic chemicals similar to those used in the lethal assault on Tokyo's subways in a massive raid Wednesday on the secretive religious group Aum Supreme Truth.

The find, which included 200 drums of toxins and chemical equipment that can be used to produce deadly sarin nerve gas, may provide the first firm links to the attack that killed 10 and afflicted more than 5,000 morning commuters earlier this week.

More than 1,000 police launched another search today of Supreme Truth's compound near Mt. Fuji, southwest of Tokyo. They found large amounts of at least two other chemicals used to make sarin.

Intensifying their probe of the controversial religious sect, police also arrested another member in western Japan today after a car chase that began when they stopped him for a traffic violation. The Japanese Defense Forces dispatched 14 chemical experts to the scene near Hikone after suspicious substances, gas masks and metal briefcases were found in the car.

In Wednesday's raid, police in gas masks and riot gear arrested four sect members on charges of illegally confining some of the 50 people found prone in a prayer room at the compound in the wooded foothills of Mt. Fuji.

Most were weak--some severely dehydrated and close to starvation--and six were hospitalized after apparently fasting for 10 days as part of enforced religious training. Although the patients reportedly were not talking, a 79-year-old man told a nurse that they ate only what they were given.

One woman reportedly told police that she was confined and forced to drink medicines and receive injections, the NHK television network said. Three of those arrested were doctors at the group's hospital.

The woman, 23, immediately sought police protection when officials stormed the compound in the early morning raid. The woman, who was hiding in a toilet stall, claimed that she had been confined in a container.

The man at the center of the turmoil, Aum leader Shoko Asahara, was not found at any of the 25 locations raided. But he delivered an apocalyptic message by radio to followers urging them to come to his aid to accomplish his "salvation plan."

"Disciples, the time to awaken and help me is upon you," Asahara was quoted as saying in a message reportedly broadcast from a sect radio station in Vladivostok, a Russian port on the Sea of Japan. "Let's carry out the salvation plan and greet death without regrets."

Sect members screaming "Illegal search!" and "We oppose violence!" tussled with police outside the raided buildings and used vehicles to form a barricade at the Yamanashi compound. Sect attorney Yoshinobu Aoyama called the raid "unprecedented religious suppression" and said the police committed illegal acts, from the search to injuring followers.

Supreme Truth members demanded to be allowed to witness the search, but police forcibly removed many from buildings and barred them from re-entering.

The group has denied involvement in the deadly subway attack, which afflicted more than 5,000 people with nausea, blurred vision, breathing problems and other symptoms when packages leaking sarin were left on five subway cars near the heart of Japan's government center Monday.

Police are investigating whether a chemical company in Shizuoka prefecture, or state, owned by a group member was supplying the material to make sarin, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported. The newspaper also reported that the group has an elite chemical team, the Truth Science Technology Institute, made up of science graduates from the prestigious Tokyo and Osaka universities.

In a sign that the group may have been preparing for a final apocalyptic battle, a Supreme Truth publishing firm in March released a book titled "Rising Sun Country: Disaster Is Getting Close," by Asahara, the sect's leader. The book explains in detail the characteristics of various chemical weapons, including sarin.

Aum Supreme Truth, which practices forms of Buddhism and yoga and believes that the world is headed for doomsday toward the end of the century, claims 10,000 members in Japan and 30,000 in Russia. It has been implicated in several abductions and linked to another sarin case.

Last July, police found traces of a sarin-like substance around the Yamanashi compound after neighbors complained about a foul smell.

But Asahara has charged that the substance was placed in the compound and has said that Japanese police and defense forces and the U.S. military have sprayed mustard gas and other poisons on the group's facilities.

Officials are also searching for links to a sarin poisoning last year in Matsumoto city in Nagano prefecture northwest of Tokyo, where seven people were killed and more than 200 afflicted when the deadly gas was released in a neighborhood. Chemical weapons experts speculate that the poisoning may have been a trial run for Monday's subway attack.

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