Police raid sect and find starving people

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The Independent Online

of Associated Press

Kamiku-Isshiki - "Don't look at me," the dishevelled man shouted at onlookers, his head covered by an aviator's helmet with wires protruding.

The police raid on the mysterious sect's ramshackle compound in the forested foothills of Mount Fuji netted chemical tanks, industrial equipment - and dozens of cult followers left dazed or unconscious, apparently from malnutrition.

As officers wearing gas masks prepared before dawn to move in, red lights and spotlights lit up the forest. Police had advanced gas-sniffing machines, but used a lower-tech method: they carried canaries, whose deaths would warn of toxic fumes.

Those fears were unfounded. Police quickly seized control of the compound, and had secured it within two hours, meeting almost no resistance. From one of the second-floor windows, occupants recorded the police entry with video cameras.

Country roads leading to the compound resembled a supply route for a battle, with canopied trucks, buses with grilles over the windows, armoured trucks and water cannon. Convoys of more than 100 police vehicles and 1,000 men converged near Lake Motosuko, a scenic tourist spot. They fanned out to 11 separate sites in Kamiku-Isshiki, 70 miles west of Tokyo.

The show of force was in sharp contrast to the peaceful, rural setting. An entrance to one small plot of land had a handwritten sign advertising flowers for sale. When word came to move, police strapped on gas masks, climbed into protective gear and formed columns. They moved swiftly into the compound three abreast, their riot shields held high.

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.

The compound's grounds were littered with electrical and industrial equipment, including gas or chemical tanks, and thick cables that resembled part of a large-scale chemical exhaust system. 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 cloth stretchers.

Doctors said they appeared to be suffering from malnutrition, and at least six were hospitalised. As the ambulances pulled away, some young sect members stood by and wept.