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in Tokyo


Japanese police wearing gas masks and protective suits removed 34 drums containing nerve gas solvents yesterday as they raided a bizarre sect implicated in Monday's poison gas attack on the Tokyo subway system.

Shoko Asahara, the charismatic leader of Aum Shinri Kyo (the Supreme Truth), was still at large yesterday, but the government-owned NHK TV channel broadcast a message to his followers in which he appeared to call on them to commit suicide.

"The time has come at last for you to awake and help me," he said. "You must act to carry out the salvation plan and to greet death without regrets." The call was first carried on Tuesday by a Russian radio station on which the cult rents time to reach its many adherents in Russia's far east, but it was not known whether Mr Asahara had gone there.

As the death toll in Monday's mass poisoning reached 10, police staged dawn raids on more than two dozen sites around Japan. The biggest operation was at Kamiku-Isshiki, a small village on the slopes of Mount Fuji, where the cult has one of its largest communes.

Last year traces of acetonitrile, a chemical associated with the nerve gas sarin, were found in soil nearby. The same chemical was found in the subway carriages polluted by Monday's attack, and in the drums seized yesterday.

About 50 Aum Shinri Kyo followers at the commune were found in a "comatose state" and suffering from acute malnutrition, apparently after fasting. Several were taken to hospital. The cult demands that its followers hand over all their wealth on joining, and police also took away 700m yen (£4.9m) in cash and 22lbs of gold.

Although several cult members were arrested, no one has yet been charged with the attempt at mass murder, in which nearly 5,000 people on three subway lines were poisoned.

Further reports, page 12