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Japanese Police Seek Sect Leader as Probe Widens

March 24, 1995|TERESA WATANABE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — Japanese police resumed their search of the Aum Supreme Truth premises near Mt. Fuji today and sought to question Shoko Asahara, the religious sect's leader, after finding stores of basic materials for deadly nerve gas used to attack subways in Tokyo earlier this week.

Police discovered more sodium fluoride, a necessary ingredient for sarin nerve gas, while tension heightened in the village of Kamikuishiki, where the Supreme Truth compound is located, after officials received an anonymous call threatening to blow up the town hall and kill all villagers with poison gas unless the searches were stopped.

Authorities planned to launch a nationwide probe into the group's activities after earlier finding a huge cache of cash, gold and toxic chemicals--and followers who claimed to have been forcibly confined--in raids on the group's compound in Yamanashi prefecture and other locations.

In the first possible link with an earlier sarin attack in Matsumoto on June 22, Mainichi Shimbun reported that two paper firms--with a top executive who is a Supreme Truth member--bought a large quantity of chemicals needed to manufacture sarin in the months before the incident. The executive registered his residential address at the sect compound in Yamanashi and the corporate address in Matsumoto, the newspaper quoted police as saying.

Authorities intended to question Asahara, the 40-year-old bearded guru, about why he and his followers amassed an arsenal of toxic chemicals. A Supreme Truth lawyer, in a radio interview Thursday, said Asahara would fully answer police questions, but he declined to disclose the leader's whereabouts.

In an interview with the NHK television network shown today, Asahara denied that chemicals seized by police at his sect's buildings had anything to do with nerve gas used in the subway attacks. "Sodium fluoride is used to make pottery," he said.

NHK did not say where or when the interview was held.

But in another cryptic radio message broadcast from Russia, Asahara told followers: "Salvation is overcoming hardship. Salvation (is for) people who can sacrifice themselves." On Wednesday, he urged followers to come to his aid to carry out the group's salvation plan and exhorted them to "greet death without regrets."

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Meanwhile, the Japanese network TV Asahi reported Thursday that police had trained with Self-Defense Forces on the use of gas masks a day before Monday's subway attack.

After delaying a raid originally planned for December and then postponed because of the Kobe earthquake in mid-January, police on March 17 decided to move in on the Supreme Truth group and sought assistance from defense forces.

The TV network speculated that the subway attack--centered on Kasumigaseki station directly in front of the National Police Agency headquarters--might have been a preemptive strike.

Japanese media also reported Thursday that an unnamed top official close to Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin headed Russia's Supreme Truth branch. As a result, Asahara has been treated as a VIP in Russia and managed to obtain from the Russians a highly specialized machine to detect the presence of sarin, the media reported.

As police puzzle over Asahara's motivations, a new book by the mysterious guru clearly links chemical warfare with his religious beliefs as he outlines a paranoid, chilling vision of a coming apocalypse.

The book, "Rising Sun Country: Disaster Approaches," says that nerve gas will be the new weapon of Armageddon. It details characteristics of sarin and two other nerve gases, precautions on how to mix them and how to treat symptoms if exposed.

The book, quoting a follower from the group's chemical division, explains that nerve gas must be made immediately before its release because it is so toxic it will begin to kill instantly.

After discovering two plastic containers with chemical traces, authorities now suspect that materials for the sarin released Monday in Tokyo's subways--killing 10 and afflicting more than 5,000 morning commuters--were carried separately and mixed on the trains.

Police continued to question four suspects arrested Wednesday for illegal confinement of followers discovered in the raid on the Yamanashi compound.

Chiaki Kitada of The Times' Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.

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