Japan arrests cult official in drive against sect

More than three weeks after sarin nerve gas killed 11 people on the Tokyo underground, the net appears to be tightening around leaders of Aum Shinri Kyo, the Japanese religious group suspected of the attack.

A senior member of the cult was arrested yesterday on suspicion of kidnapping one of its former members. Tomomitsu Niimi, Aum Shinri Kyo's so-called "home affairs minister", was detained in Tokyo and taken for questioning to Yamanashi Prefecture, near where hundreds of tons of chemical-weapon ingredients have been recovered from buildings owned by the sect.

He is suspected of illegally detaining a nurse, aged 29, an Aum priest who lived in the cult's compound at Kamiku Isshiki. In July last year, she tried to leave the sect, but was allegedly abducted by Mr Niimi, and confined for three months in a storage container.

She claims she was handcuffed and forced to undergo "religious training" by being immersed in hot water. In October, she escaped for a second time and approached the police.

Investigators told the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper that Mr Niimi is one of the leaders of a "commando group" responsible for detaining Aum members who attempt to leave the sect.

After focusing at first on Aum facilities in Yamanashi,police have mounted raids onregional offices all over Japan.

Ninety sect members areunder arrest, including three of its senior officials, although most arebeing held on minor charges.

Last week, Tetsuya Kibe, head of the "defence agency" and a suspected member of the commando unit, was detained for illegally entering an underground car park. Gun parts, including metal barrels and triggers, were discovered in his car. On Saturday, Ikuo Hayashi, director of an Aum health clinic and chief of its "health ministry", was arrested for stealing a bicycle.

The sect believes it will come to power after a catastrophic war in 1997. It is organised into "ministries", including Justice, Science and Technology, and Home Affairs.

Thepolice are combingIshikawa, a remote rural prefecture,for another sect officer, Takeshi Matsumoto. Most intriguingare reported sightings of Aum Shinri Kyo's guru, Shoko Asahara, not been seen in public since the sarin attack.There aresuspicions hemay try to escape from Japan by boat.