About 30,000 police officers conducted searches and set up roadblocks around Japan on Thursday in a hunt for leaders of the Aum Shinrikyo sect, and authorities arrested two sect followers who previously have been active in the Japanese underworld.
The sect is under suspicion of planning the nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system last month, which killed 11 people and injured more than 5,000, as well as the shooting of the head of the National Police Agency.
Aum Shinrikyo denies involvement and has accused the Japanese and U.S. governments of responsibility for the gas attacks.
Police also ordered strictest security in Tokyo for several days beginning today because the sect’s guru reportedly prophesied this year that something terrible would happen April 15 in the capital. The guru, Shoko Asahara, a 40-year-old yoga expert with an unusual interest in poison gases, has disappeared along with many senior followers.
More than 100 members of the cult are under arrest, mostly for minor offenses such as traffic violations and obstruction of police officers. But the whereabouts of Asahara and his 30-member team of science experts are unknown.
Thursday, police arrested a senior sect official, Kiyohide Nakada, a tall, thin 47-year-old with a shaved head, as he left a television station after giving a live interview. Japanese news organizations said Nakada had led a criminal gang in Nagoya until about 1988, when he joined Aum Shinrikyo.
The gang was affiliated with Yamaguchi Gumi, part of the yakuza, or Japanese organized crime. The gangs widely are believed to be involved in extortion, prostitution, gambling, gun-running and other illegal activities.
Nakada is said to have been in charge of an “action squad” that kidnapped sect members who had left and wanted to return to normal life.
He was promoted to a senior role in the cult not long after the kidnapping of the family of a lawyer who opposed Aum Shinrikyo, but no clear link has emerged to connect the sect with the kidnapping.
Police reportedly also arrested another former gang member on suspicion of violating gun laws. Japanese news reports said the man had converted five replica pistols into workable handguns.
Police searches of sect properties have uncovered a Russian military helicopter, biological warfare supplies and tons of chemicals used to make nerve gas and explosives as well as what the authorities believe was a small factory to make machine guns.
Now police reportedly have found evidence that the group wanted to buy tanks as well.
Kyodo News Service reported that a notebook belonging to the head of what the sect calls its defense ministry includes information about the purchase of Russian tanks, including how they could be brought to Japan by freighter. A used tank would cost $200,000 to $300,000, while a new one would cost about $1 million, the notebook indicated.
Sect leaders have denied that they manufactured guns, and they emphasize that they stockpiled innocent products, such as rice, as well as goods such as chemicals. They say they expected an Armageddon and wanted to be self-sufficient so they could survive the disaster.
Nakada, the former gang leader, was arrested on suspicion of extortion, although the police are sure to question him on a range of other matters. Japanese news organizations reported that Nakada had been convicted in 1984 of gun possession and that he later lost control of his gang and then joined Aum Shinrikyo.
“They were looking for any excuse to arrest him,” Fumihiro Joyu, a sect spokesman, said of Nakada’s arrest Thursday. “The charges may have been fabricated.”
It is true that police appear to be arresting sect members for an unusual array of minor offenses.
The man who had the replica handguns initially had been detained for driving without a license. And another search of a sect property Thursday was conducted on the basis that the structure is in violation of the building code.
Japanese law allows police to detain suspects for about three weeks in certain circumstances, and this period often is used to put pressure on people to confess to crimes. Police seem to want to arrest Aum Shinrikyo members to gather evidence linking the group with the subway attack and to reduce the chance of another attack.
The huge police search Thursday was aimed principally at cult officials who are wanted in connection with a kidnapping, as well as those who are chemistry experts and may have been involved in preparing nerve gas.
The police carried gas masks and canaries in cages Thursday during their searches because they fear that the chemists may have taken some nerve gas with them.