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Japanese frantic for gas arrest


in Tokyo

Japanese police yesterday removed two tons of chemicals from the headquarters of the Aum Shinri Kyo (Supreme Truth) sect, suspected of engineering the nerve gas attack which killed 10 commuters and injured 5,500 on the Tokyo subway on Monday.

Eleven hundred officers, some with protective clothing and carrying caged canaries, continued their search of prefabricated buildings in the village of Kamiku-Isshiki on Mount Fuji, 65 miles west of Tokyo.

On Wednesday, the police discovered nerve gas solvent, 22lb of gold and £4.9 m in cash. Yesterday two tons of chemicals were removed in vats and drums, including sodium fluoride, phosphorous dichloride, and isopropyl alcohol - all used in the manufacture of the Sarin gas which was released on Monday.

Six sect followers, found apparently drugged and locked up in the compound, were taken to hospital yesterday.

A further 600 drums, each containing 200 litres of unspecified materials, were seized from a warehouse in the nearby city of Kofu. The police also found atropine, an antidote to Sarin, which was carried by Allied troops during the Gulf war.

The investigation was suspended when police discovered cyanide compounds spilling out of their paper containers. It is expected to be resumed today when chemical experts will be called in.

Members of Aum Shinri Kyo offered no resistance. A sect spokesman claimed that the confiscated chemicals were used for welding and the processing of computer chips.

No one has been charged, but four days into their investigation, police confirmed that they wished to question the sect's leader, Shoko Asahara, aged 40.

The police appear to be proceeding with characteristic caution and assiduousness. Fifty thousand leaflets were handed out to commuters yesterday, appealing for witnesses to come forward.

There was a flurry of excitement yesterday after a male cult member was arrested after driving through a red light while fleeing from police. However what appeared to be a gas mask turned out to be an air purifier and goggles. Takaji Kunimatsu, Commissioner General of the National Police Agency, announced that extra police were being deployed "An arrest," he said, "would be the best thing to ease public concerns."

Mr Asahara has not been seen since Monday's attack, but has continued to broadcast to Japan via a Russian radio station. The sect had been paying almost $2,000 a day for daily three-hour broadcasts beamed fromVladivostok. Yesterday, Russia's state-owned Mayak channel said the broadcasts had been stopped.

Mr Asahara's lawyer refused to disclose his whereabouts, but said that he would answer questions. The sect has denied involvement in the atrocity, insisting it has been framed by "government agencies".

The cult, which preaches a hybrid of Buddhism, Taoism and yogic meditation, claims 10,000 members in Japan, Russia and the US. It has come under suspicion for a number of crimes, including a release of Sarin which killed at least seven people in the city of Matsumoto in June 1994.

Two kidnappings have also been linked to the sect.

On 28 February, a 68-year-old man whose sister was attempting to defect from the sect, disappeared in Tokyo. Witnesses reported seeing him bundled into a car. A lawyer, involved in proceedings against the cult, also disappeared, with his wife and child.