Baffled Japan may try phone taps

YOKOHAMA TRAIN TERROR: Police draw blank in search to identify attackers and gas used

In an indication of growing helplessness in the face of terrorist attacks, the Japanese government hinted yesterday that it may authorise undercover operations and telephone tapping to deal with terrorism.

The suggestion was made by the Justice Minister, Isao Maeda, in the wake of the Yokohama gas attack, which poisoned 500 people, exactly a month after the Tokyo sarin gas attack. His remarks reflect mounting embarrassment at the slow pace of the police investigation into the two gas incidents and the unsolved shooting of a police chief last month. "Judging from the example of foreign countries, we believe that plea bargaining and wire tapping will be effective," Mr Maeda told a committee of the Diet. Both are banned under current legislation, and have always seemed unnecessary in a society with some of the lowest crime figures and highest police success rates in the world.

Yesterday morning, less than 24 hours after toxic fumes spread through Yokohama's central station, investigators raided the local headquarters of Aum Shinri Kyo, the religious cult suspected of the earlier sarin killings. They arrested a man, but appeared to be no closer to identifying the perpetrator of Wednesday's attack or even the substance used. Initial reports suggested that it was phosgene, after victims in Tokyo hospitals were found to have pulmonary oedema (swelling of the lung tissues), a classic symptom of the gas, which was used during the First World War. But this was later denied.

Other patients complained of nausea, prickling eyes and throats, and coughing. Doctors discounted speculation that the incident was a case of mass hysteria caused by the tense atmosphere in Japan during the past few weeks.

"Of the four people I treated one of them was very highly strung and might have been suffering a psychosomatic illness," said Dr Nobukatsu Takasu of St Luke's International Hospital, Tokyo. "But one of them had pulmonary oedema, and that must have been caused by something physical." Of the 509 people treated, just over 20 were kept in hospital and most of those were expected to go home today or tomorrow.

Dr Takasu, who treated victims of last month's sarin attack, said the symptoms in the Yokohama incident were quite different. "It is not a chemical weapon, but it might be another kind of irritant gas," he said. "I've seen factory workers with symptoms like this after they have been affected by bleach. This might have been chlorine gas or hydrogen sulphide." A similar incident occurred on 6 March, when 11 people complained of sore throats and nausea on the train between Yokohama and Tokyo.

Six thousand police were on duty in Yokohama yesterday, including officers on every corner of the station. Investigators confirmed that the fumes were released at three separate places in the station, as well as on an incoming train.

But by the evening, the investigation appeared to have reached a dead end, in the complete absence of any evidence which might identify the attackers or their motive.

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