Poison gas chemicals found at cult HQ

Leader urges sect members to `greet death without regrets' as authorities are accused of dithering in face of disasters

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, which means "the Supreme Truth", was still at large, but the government-owned NHK television 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. 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 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 Tokyo this week, in which nearly 5,000 people on three subway lines were poisoned. About 70 people are still in a critical condition. The official line yesterday was that police were investigating the disappearance of Kiyoshi Kamira, who was allegedly kidnapped by cult members last month. "But when investigating we, of course, think of various possibilities," said Kozo Igarashi, chief cabinet secretary.

There was no further word on the fate of a suspect police were reported to have under guard in a Tokyo hospital. Witnesses said he planted one of the deadly parcels before being overcome by its fumes, but he had not recovered sufficiently to be questioned.

As officers wearing gas masks prepared before dawn to move in on the Kamiku-Isshiki compound, spotlights lit up the forest. Police had advanced gas-sniffing machines, but also carried canaries, whose deaths would warn of toxic fumes.

Inside the filthy, hodgepodge warehouse compound, several bizarrely dressed sect members walked aimlessly about. One man wore what looked like an aviator's helmet with wires protruding from electrodes stuck to it. A pregnant woman, in a dirt-stained white butcher's smock, wandered nearby, appearing disoriented. Another woman wore a purple woollen hat with wires protruding from underneath.

Soon after police arrived, at least a dozen ambulances were summoned. Police and medical personnel began carrying out the first of about 50 people on stretchers. Doctors said they appeared to be suffering from malnutrition, and at least six were hospitalised.

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