At 5.35am local time, some 1,000 officers entered a building owned by the Aum Shinri Kyo religious cult where Mr Asahara is said by police to be hiding. Using a circular saw they cut through a steel door on the first floor of the building, called "Satian No. 6", which was Mr Asahara's living quarters. Hundreds of reporters and camera crews stood outside and television helicopters buzzed over the scene in the village of Kamiku Isshiki near Mount Fuji. Television channels switched to live coverage of the raid which the Japanese media have nicknamed "X-Day". However, two hours after police cut through the steel door to search the building they had failed to find any sign of the cult leader.
Shigeaki Ishikawa, chief of the Toyko Metropolitan Police Department's Criminal Investigation Bureau told reporters that there had been simultaneous raids on the 130 other places nationwide, including Aum Shinri Kyo headquarters in Minami Aoyama in central Tokyo.
The raids mark the climax of seven week's of investigation into Aum Shinri Kyo. Yesterday afternoon, arrest warrants were formerly granted for Mr Asahara and 40 of his followers for the murder of 12 people and the attempted murder of 5,500 others who were injured in the gas attack on 20 March. Ten of the suspects are already in custody.
After 200 arrests and the seizure of gun parts and hundreds of tons of chemical and biological ingredients, police are finally satisfied that the cult systematically produced sarin and that Mr Asahara, who has not been seen since before the attack, gave his approval to its use on the subway.
The breakthrough came last week when cult members, held for questioning on unrelated charges, allegedly confessed to manufacturing and releasing the gas. By-products of sarin have been detected around the Kamiku Isshiki buildings but no samples of the gas have been found. It has long been feared that fugitive cult members might still have stocks of the nerve agent. In Yokohama, several people were taken to hospital last night after complaining of a mysterious choking smell.
This morning extra police were on duty all over Japan and security at office and public buildings was tight.
Early yesterday police arrested Yoshihiro Inoue, 25, the "intelligence chief" of Aum, who is said to have directly supervised the subway attack.
Mr Inoue was driving through Tokyo with two other men and a woman. He was carrying a false driving licence, and police confiscated 500 items from the car, including drugs and notebooks. Police earlier obtained notes made by Mr Inoue which showed he reconnoitred the subway lines targeted in the sarin attack.The day before, he led a petrol-bomb attack on the cult's Tokyo headquarters, designed to put police off the scent by suggesting that Aum itself was being victimised. While Mr Inoue was at large, police feared revenge attacks if they arrested Mr Asahara, who has forecast the world will end in an Armageddon-type war in 1997.
Apocalypse postponed, page 17