TOKYO — Still on guard against encountering deadly chemicals, police in masks and protective clothing took soil samples today at a rural religious commune where they found gas solvent yesterday.
Several members of the sect have been arrested in a kidnapping case, but police would not say whether they were being questioned in the nerve gas attack Monday on the Tokyo subway. Ten people were killed and nearly 5,000 sickened by the poisonous gas released during rush hour.
News reports said several of those arrested in the crackdown yesterday were doctors. However, police have not publicly linked them to the subway attack.
The group has denied any role in the attack. There is no known motive and no claim of responsibility.
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More than 500 police converged on the group’s compound near Mount Fuji today, wearing full chemical-protection garb and carrying caged canaries as gas detectors. Trucks were lined up, apparently to transport seized materials.
And police in Shiga prefecture said they found gas masks and metal briefcases in car driven by a sect member.
An official said the items were found when they detained a member of the sect for a traffic violation in the city of Hikone, about 180 miles west of Tokyo. Police said he told them he did not know what the briefcases contained.
Police said the man, who tried to flee, later identified himself as Katsuhiko Kobayashi, 26. His car was registered with the sect.
Meanwhile, the sect’s leader, Shoko Asahara, was reported to have delivered an apocalyptic-sounding message Tuesday to followers in the Russian Far East.
“The time has come at last for you to awake and help me,” Asahara said in the message, broadcast last night by Japan’s NHK television. “You must act to ensure you do not have any regrets about death.”
The raids are yielding frightening evidence of the sect’s hold over its followers.
At the rural compound, police found 50 people who were weak and ill. Six were hospitalized. Press reports said doctors discovered that some cult members found dazed and disoriented had been given drugs.
Police said a 23-year-old female sect member told them she had been drugged and confined in a container at the compound.
The nerve gas attack has left Japanese shocked by the assault on their safe, efficient train system and their orderly way of life.
“While it is hard to build a safe society, it is very easy to destroy it,” the Asahi newspaper said.
Yesterday was the first normal rush-hour on the subways since the attack, which shut down three busy lines in the heart of Tokyo.
Early this morning, a moderately strong earthquake jolted the Tokyo area, causing delays in high-speed bullet train service while the tracks were checked for damage.
The 4.6 magnitude quake was centered in southwestern Ibaraki prefecture, about 30 miles north of Tokyo, and about 30 miles below the earth’s surface, the Central Meteorological Agency said.
Newspapers put out special editions yesterday about the raids, and television broadcast continuous coverage of hundreds of police massing outside sect buildings and hauling away dozens of drums of chemicals.
Police refused to discuss the seized chemicals, but the Kyodo News Service said they included a solvent used to make sarin, the nerve gas used in the subway attack.
The gas, developed by Nazi scientists, caused passengers to retch, faint and have convulsions. Several hundred people remained hospitalized in the wake of the attack, 52 of them in serious or critical condition.
Despite the resolve the raids showed, authorities were clearly treating the sect with considerable caution. Police employed notable restraint, using no weapons to subdue sect followers who resisted.
Officials even refused to specifically say the raids were in connection with the subway attack, instead citing their investigation of a public notary’s kidnapping.
But it was widely assumed that the impetus was the subway attack, and police took every precaution against a possible chemical-weapons clash. Officers wore gas masks and protective suits and carried computerized gas sniffers.
The raids began at dawn. At the group’s compound in the woods outside Kamikuishiki, 68 miles from Tokyo, about 1,200 police in full riot gear marched in, riot shields held high.
As gas-masked police surrounded the group’s Tokyo headquarters, some sect members gathered outside to jeer them. Across town at another sect building, onlookers expressed disgust with the Omu Shinrikyo.
“When they first were building here two years ago, the whole neighborhood protested, but the bureaucrats told us there was nothing they could do because the building didn’t violate any regulations,” said Soroku Takano, a neighbor. ”We knew there would be trouble, but we couldn’t stop them from coming.”
There was no word on the fate of a suspect whom police were reported to have under guard in a hospital. Witnesses said he planted one of the deadly parcels before being overcome by its fumes.
Japanese media said investigators were waiting until he recovered sufficiently to be questioned.
Material from Reuters was used in this report.