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49 dead, 48 missing in Japan rain

Execution of doomsday cult founder sparks alert

A rescue helicopter hovers over damaged buildings after a landslide caused by heavy rains in Iwakuni, Yamaguchi prefecture, southwestern Japan on July 7. Torrents of rainfall and flooding continued to batter southwestern Japan. (Inset): People wait to be rescued on the top of a house almost submerged in floodwaters caused by heavy rains in Kurashiki, Okayama prefecture, southwestern Japan. (AP)

TOKYO, July 7, (Agencies): Forty nine people have been killed and 48 are unaccounted for in western and central Japan as torrential rain pounds the area, public broadcaster NHK said on Saturday, with more than 1.6 million evacuated from their homes. Japan’s Meteorological Agency retained special weather warnings for three prefectures in the main island of Honshu, down from five, and urged vigilance against landslides, rising rivers and strong winds amid what it called “historic” rains. Helicopter footage showed people on their roofs waving for help in Kurashiki, and Japanese soldiers rescuing children by boat from a flooded river in Hiroshima.

In Motoyama, a town on Shikoku island, about 600 km (373 miles) from the capital Tokyo, 583 mm (23 inches) of rain fell between Friday and Saturday morning, the agency said. Although a weather front had settled between western and eastern Japan, there was a risk heavy rains would continue as warm air flowed towards the front, it added, with already-saturated areas facing more rain on Sunday. Among the dead were a man who fell from a bridge into a river in western Hiroshima city, and a 77-year-old man in Takashima, 56 km (35 miles) east of the ancient capital of Kyoto, who was swept into a canal as he worked to remove debris, NHK said.

Four people in Ehime, Hiroshima and Yamaguchi prefectures were in critical condition after being injured in landslides, it added. By Saturday morning, more than 1.6 million people had been ordered to evacuate their homes for fear of flooding and further landslides, with 3.1 million more advised to leave, the Fire and Disaster Management Agency said. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said about 48,000 police, firefighters and members of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces were responding to appeals for help.

A 5.9-magnitude earthquake hit Japan Saturday evening outside of Tokyo, swaying buildings in the capital, but no tsunami warning was issued. The quake hit at 8:23 pm (1123 GMT), at a depth of 39 kms (24 miles), off the east coast of Honshu, Japan, the US Geological Survey said. Japan’s meteorological agency said no tsunami warning was being issued.

There were no immediate reports of damage after the quake, a relatively rare strong tremor to hit the capital. Residents in part of the Chiba region outside Tokyo reported strong tremors, with some saying the shaking had knocked objects from shelves, but there were no immediate injuries reported. Public broadcaster NHK said no abnormalities had been detected at nuclear facilities in the region.

Japan was on alert on Saturday amid fears that the executions of the former leader and members of a doomsday cult behind the deadly Tokyo subway sarin gas attack in 1995 could spark acts of retaliation by supporters or newly formed groups.

Japan hanged Shoko Asahara on Friday and six other members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult, which killed 13 people in an attack that shattered the country’s myth of public safety. Police and the Public Security Intelligence Agency were collecting intelligence and monitoring followers of Asahara, Kyodo news agency said on Friday, citing warnings by a senior police official that Aum followers remained active.

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