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U.S. was a target of Japanese cult

The religious cult accused of organizing the poison gas attack on the Tokyo subway system two years ago also planned to release nerve gas in the United States, according to testimony.

The idea was planned out sufficiently that the cult ordered one of its members to go to the United States to pick up a shipment of sarin nerve gas that would be concealed in a Japanese ornament and sent by sea mail, a former cult official testified Friday. He said that the plan was later dropped, for reasons that remain unclear.

The cult, Aum Shinri Kyo, was ferociously critical of the United States and accused the U.S. military of attempting to kill its believers. It had an office in New York, and after the group was implicated in the subway incident U.S. officials became concerned about the possibility of an attack in the United States.

But investigations by U.S. authorities suggested that the cult regarded the United States more as a place to buy high-tech weaponry than as a target for attacks.

In the testimony, Dr. Ikuo Hayashi, the former medical director of Aum Shinri Kyo, said the cult had planned nerve gas attacks in the United States in June 1994.

"The guru (Shoko Asahara) has ordered us to release sarin in several places in America," Hayashi quoted the cult's intelligence director as telling him at the time. Hayashi said the intelligence director then instructed him to go to the United States to pick up the sarin package upon its arrival in a shipment of ornaments.

Hayashi, who until he joined the cult was a respected cardiac specialist who once worked in a U.S. hospital, may have been recruited for the job because of his familiarity with the United States. He said he agreed reluctantly but that the plan was suspended.

Shortly afterward, in July 1994, sarin nerve gas was released in the Japanese town of Matsumoto. Seven people died and 200 were injured in that incident.

Police have accused the cult of that attack, and it has also been held responsible for the rush hour attack on the subway system the following spring, which killed 12 and injured several thousand.

Aum Shinri Kyo and its guru, Asahara, have denied any wrongdoing, although many former officials have admitted plotting the nerve gas attacks and numerous other killings.

The trials of Asahara and other top cult officials may take a decade or more before they are resolved.