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.
Analysts said it was unlikely the nerve gas used in Monday’s attack originated in Russia. Sarin is stored inside shells and bombs, which are kept under heavy security and would be difficult to smuggle out of the country, said Pavel Felgenhauer, military analyst for Sevodnya newspaper.
The group has issued a statement denouncing any effort to link it with the subway attack.
“To create an impression that the Aum Supreme Truth was a group that would carry out inhumane acts, we think state authorities planned this conspiracy,” the group said.
Despite the theory that Japan’s government was the target Monday, the 10 victims who died were ordinary citizens, including three subway officials.
“I couldn’t believe it was my daughter,” said Monjiro Iwata, whose offspring, Takako, 32, collapsed and died on her way to work. “I’m so angry I’m boiling with rage. She hasn’t harmed anyone,” he told Reuters news service.
Meanwhile, the Saikyo Railway line was temporarily shut down and passengers evacuated at Akabane station about 7:20 a.m. today after reports of a strange smell. No toxic gas was found, however, and the line resumed its service.
On Tuesday, even compared with other national holidays, ridership was down by 30% on the Hibiya line, the major one affected. Signs posted at stations warned passengers to remain vigilant.
“I’m a little scared. I was thinking, ‘Isn’t there some kind of funny smell?’ when I boarded,” said Takeshi Ikezawa, a 22-year-old Kyorin University student on his way to a graduation party in the Kamiyacho district of Tokyo. “If I didn’t have to ride this line, I wouldn’t.”
Sarin, developed by Nazi Germany in 1938, cripples the nervous and respiratory systems. A single drop of the substance can kill within minutes.
Times staff writer Sonni Efron in Moscow contributed to this report.
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Responding to Poison Gas
Once released, sarin lingers dangerously for 2-4 hours, depending on the area’s ventilation and airflow. A droplet or a few seconds of exposure to a mist of pure sarin can be all it takes to trigger symptoms that unless treated promptly, ultimately are followed by death. The treatment:
* An injection of about 20-40 milligrams of atropine sulfate is needed minutes after contact with the toxic gas.
* A second drug, pralidoxime chloride (3-PAMC1), is then administered. A dosage of 600 milligrams per injection may have to be given repeatedly. Therapeutic levels of the drug may also be given intravenously over the next few hours.
Source: Clark Staten, Emergency Response and Research Institute