Police Launch New Raids, Reportedly Want to Question Missing Sect Leader
TOKYO (AP) _ Police in protective suits raided four more compounds of a doomsday religious sect Friday, spreading their search for the source of nerve gas that killed 10 people in an attack on Tokyo’s subway.
After finding dangerous chemicals Thursday at the rural headquarters of Aum Shinri Kyo, police swept down Friday on locations in Osaka, 300 miles southwest of Tokyo. There were no arrests, and police didn’t say what they found.
The NTV network said police found about 50 group members in one Osaka-area building and another 75 in a prefabricated building at a construction company related to the group.
At the group’s compound near Mt. Fuji, military experts Friday were removing tons of chemicals. Police said they included fluorine and phosphorus, which can be used to make sarin, the nerve gas used in the subway attack Monday that also sickened nearly 5,000 people.
The cult’s missing leader Shoko Asahara, meanwhile, appeared on Japanese television, denying involvement with the production of sarin, the nerve gas used in the subway attack.
The bearded, long-haired Asahara, eyes nearly closed, said in a videotape shown on public NHK television that chemicals found by authorities were for innocent purposes, including ceramics.
``I don’t understand how sarin could be produced by using these materials,″ he said.
Police reportedly want to question Asahara. According to news reports, the sect’s lawyer says he is willing to answer police questions but refused to disclose his whereabouts.
Osaka police spokesman Kiyotaka Yamamoto said the police raids Friday were looking for evidence in a kidnapping case. But the chemical-protection gear worn by officers suggested they expect to find evidence linking the group to Monday’s attack.
On Thursday, military poison-gas specialists used forklifts to remove large piles of chemicals at the group’s headquarters _ chemicals experts said could be used to make sarin.
Police also discovered equipment for synthesizing chemicals, Kyodo News Service reported.
Also Thursday, a military chemical squad was dispatched to inspect and neutralize a cult-owned car after its driver was arrested following a chase. Police initially said they believed the car contained dangerous substances, but on Friday they said none was found.
In a broadcast Thursday to followers in Russia, Asahara, who dropped from sight after the attack, denied police found sarin ingredients.
``We have not had such a thing confiscated because we have never had such a thing,″ he said.
The sect’s lawyer, Yoshinobu Aoyama, said the chemicals were to be used to process semiconductors at a computer assembly plant run by the group.
Police would not comment on reports that they plan to question Asahara on suspicion of plotting mass murder. Asahara, a bearded, 40-year-old guru-like figure, warned his followers the day before the subway attack to prepare for death.
In sect publications, Asahara has warned the world will end as soon as 1997, but that up to 25 percent of the population will survive if they join his group.
More than 500 police wearing full protective gear and carrying caged canaries to detect gas took soil samples Thursday at the group’s compound near Mt. Fuji, where they found nerve-gas solvent the previous day.
Police also said they found large amounts of isopropyl alcohol, a common household disinfectant that is also essential to at least one sarin-manufacturing technique.
News reports said six sect members hospitalized Wednesday from the rural compound outside Kamikuishiki, 68 miles west of Tokyo, had been drugged.
Several hundred people remained hospitalized from the subway attack, 52 of them in serious or critical condition.