Searches Continue of Sect Compounds, More Arrests _ But Not Leader
KAMIKUISHIKI, Japan (AP) _ Two hundred police today searched the main compound of a cult suspected in the deadly nerve gas attack on Tokyo subways, but reports that they would seize its leader appeared unfounded.
Police arrested more cult leaders but refused to comment on a report that they would charge cult leader Shoko Asahara with murder.
Asahara’s whereabouts are not publicly known, but speculation is rampant that police know and are waiting until they have enough evidence to arrest him on the most serious charges possible.
There have been fears that if he were seized, other cult members could retaliate violently. The cult claims 10,000 members in Japan.
Police have spent seven weeks searching cult facilities since the March 20 subway attack, which killed 12 people and sickened thousands. They have found tons of chemicals that could help produce sarin, the nerve gas used.
Today they seized a large cult building on suspicion weapons were being made there, said an officer, speaking on condition of anonymity. The building contained 120 precision manufacturing machines, he said.
Prefectural officials today ordered a building containing a worship hall and gymnasium at the cult’s main compound, 16 miles west of the suspected weapons facility, be closed for violating building codes.
Scores of reporters were camped outside the cult’s main compound near Mount Fuji amid speculation that Asahara was inside and his arrest was imminent.
But by late afternoon, there was no sign police were preparing to detain the cult leader, who dropped from sight after the subway poisoning attack.
Most of the high-profile police swoops since the subway attack have been early morning raids. So as the day wore on, it looked less and less likely that an arrest would take place.
Aum Shinri Kyo, or Supreme Truth, has denied involvement in the subway attack.
More than 150 cult members, some of them senior leaders, have been arrested on unrelated charges.
Police today arrested Tomomitsu Niimi, a top lieutenant of Asahara, on suspicion he helped other cult members run from the law. Niimi previously had been released after his arrest on suspicion of kidnapping a cult member who tried to escape.
Police today confirmed also that they had arrested Etsuro Ikeda, who served as ``construction minister″ in the cult’s government-like hierarchy.
Police say Ikeda supervised construction of the sophisticated chemical experimentation and storage facilities at the Mount Fuji compound, where police suspect sarin was produced.
Japanese media today were full of reports about the latest poisoning scare: the discovery over the weekend of flaming parcels containing ingredients for a deadly gas in Tokyo’s busiest train station.
Experts said the ingredients could have formed a gas capable of killing 14,000 people. Station workers doused the flames before the chemicals could combine.