Aum tip preceded attack: Kunimatsu

Tokyo, Japan - A tip that Aum Shinrikyo might try to disrupt plans by police to probe its activities was received shortly before the cult attacked the Tokyo subway system with sarin in 1995, the national police chief at the time revealed in an interview.

The account by former National Police Agency chief Takaji Kunimatsu, 72, during a recent interview with a woman who was widowed in the nerve gas attack raises new questions about whether the attack that killed 12 people and injured more than 5,000 could have been prevented.

"We had information that Aum Shinrikyomight possibly take some kind of action because they expected that their headquarters in Yamanashi Prefecturewould be raided on March 22," Kunimatsu told his interviewer, Shizue Takahashi, 63.

But the information was not specific enough to believe Aum would actually carry out the attack, the former police chief said.

Takahashi disagreed.

"It was already known at the time that Aum had sarin. And the police could have imagined that Aum would use the sarin if they had a tip suggesting they may move to distract a police investigation in some way," she said.

"We would have wanted them to apologize immediately after the incident" instead of now, she said.

During trials held for key members of the group, many of the cultists said they were told by their guru, Shoko Asahara, to attack the subway system to derail a police plan to crack down on them. Asahara, who was convicted for his role in the attack and in other Aum crimes, remains in an uncommunicative state on death row.

Kunimatsu said the police obtained the information "a few days before" the March 20 attack but refused to identify the source, saying it was difficult for the police to imagine a massive attack or deploy officers just to prevent it.

"Dispatching police officers as a preventive measure was not an option. We decided to go ahead with the crackdown on March 22 as scheduled," he said.

Referring to the agony of the commuters hit by the subway attack, Kunimatsu said: "There are no words I can offer them."

A video recording of the interview will be played at a public viewing on March 13, along with interviews with other people involved in the case ahead of the 15th anniversary of the attack.

Kunimatsu, who was the NPA's commissioner general at the time, was shot several times at the entrance to his Tokyo condominium days after police raided Aum after the subway attack.