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Grotto reveals sect's grimmest secrets

Police investigating last Monday's nerve-gas attack on the Tokyo subway uncovered more sinister clues yesterday about the activities of Aum Shin Rikyo, the bizarre religious cult suspected of the attack.

Five hundred investigators, many in camouflage chemical- warfare suits, continued to search the group's headquarters in the isolated village of Kamiku-Isshiki, on the north-west slopes of Mount Fuji.

Photographs of the interior, which is barred to journalists, illustrate the unbalanced nature of the cult, which combines apocalyptic mumbo-jumbo about reincarnation and the end of the world with an obsessive interest in dangerous chemicals.

A concrete grotto contains a gilded image of Buddha; further inside, beyond a labyrinth of narrow corridors, is a five-metre high image of Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction, and a giant hand, clasped in a sacred gesture. An adjacent altar is crowded with photographs and kitsch, painted images of Shoko Asahara, the Aum guru.

But the police have focused their attention on a large warehouse-like building next door - "Satian No 7", as the cultists call it, after the Sanskrit word for "truth". Until Sunday - publicly at least - the police refused to concede any connection between Aum and the subway killings. Now they are acknowledging cautiously what local people have believed for months: that the building contains a chemical plant for the large- scale production of sarin, the nerve gas that killed 10 commuters and injured more than 5,000.

Traces of the agent, identical to the residue found on the subway, have been detected in the soil adjoining the three-storey building. Cult followers, who had draped it with tarpaulins to prevent outsiders peering in, prayed and chanted as the investigators used chain-saws to cut through interior walls.

Among the day's haul were an instrument used for chemical analysis and equipment for separating chemical compounds. Three hundred containers of unidentified material were removed during the day, to add to the tons of isopropyl alcohol, sodium fluoride and phosphorous trichloride - all of them ingredients in the manufacture of sarin - recovered since last Wednesday.

Some of the finds corroborate lurid stories about rites practised by Aum Shin Rikyo. Syringes and intravenous drips were found in Satian No 10; near by are several large containers, each one partitioned into windowless cells, where drugged cultists were apparently confined for long-periods of "meditation''. The grimmest finds of all may still be to come; reports yesterday spoke of mysterious mounds of earth in the grounds of the compound, and a Japanese tabloid paper quoted an Aum member who claimed to have witnessed burials of fellow cultists.

Secretive at the best of times, the Japanese police are providing the minimum of public information. In its absence, rumour has flourished, particularly concerning Mr Asahara, the Aum Shin Rikyo guru, who was spirited away from his headquarters before the investigators arrived. Many believe that he may still have quantities of sarin at his disposal. The nerve agent - a colourless liquid in its pure form - corrodes metal, but is relatively easy to transport in glass or ceramic containers.

Reports that a man hospitalised in the subway attack was being guarded as a possible suspect have come to nothing; police began checking hospitals for his whereabouts only this weekend. Litter bins have been removed from underground stations which are broadcasting warnings about suspicious packages - a chastening novelty in peaceful Tokyo.

In moments of crisis and public excitement, Japanese organisations take to loudspeaker vans, which they drive around the streets, blaring out slogans and warnings: these have been noisily evident in Tokyo over the past few days.

One group announced that Mr Asahara was the reincarnation of Ishikawa Goemon, a 16th-century bandit and folk hero. A citizens' organisation warned that arenas, sport stadiums and the national sumo wrestling hall, where a tournament is currently being held, could be the next targets.

"There can be no doubt that Asahara and his followers are planning their next mass-murder,'' they declared. "All Japanese people have become hostages of Aum."