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Pandemonium erupted at Yokohama's main train station today when poisonous gas spread through an underground corridor, sickening at least 260 people. The attack came a month after nerve gas killed 12 people in the Tokyo subway, and police suggested Wednesday's may be a copycat crime.

Thousands of commuters raced pell-mell out of the station, crowding sidewalks and streets. Sirens wailed and at least 10 helicopters circled overhead.Police, firefighters and chemical weapons experts - some in gas masks - checked the station for the source of the foul chemical odor. The National Public Safety Commission chief said the air smelled like sulfuric acid.

Japanese authorities said they had identified the gas used in the attack as a World War II chemical called "phosgene."

A Yokohama Fire Department spokesman told reporters the gas was highly poisonous.

The spokesman said it was made from a mixture of carbon monoxide and chlorine and was extremely volatile.

Yuka Takaoka, a college student, said she saw firefighters clad in protective gear gingerly removing 20 or 30 small cardboard boxes from the train station.

Japan is still on edge over the March 20 Tokyo attack, in which 12 people died and 5,500 were sickened. Since then, daily revelations of terrifying discoveries at properties belonging to the main suspect - a religious cult - has kept the country on edge.

The cult, Aum Shinri Kyo, has denied any involvement in last month's attack, and in Wednesday's as well.

Early Thursday, police arrested the reputed No. 2 leader of the doomsday cult, 45-year-old Kiyo-hide Hayakawa.

Hayakawa headed the cult's "construction ministry," and was believed to have key knowledge of secret operations. He was arrested on suspicion of trespassing, a cult spokesman said.

Authorities believed today's attack was deliberate but named no suspects, and no one claimed responsibility. Police said it appeared different enough from the Tokyo attack that it may have been committed by a copycat.

At least 261 people were taken to hospitals when they complained of stinging eyes, coughs and dizziness after smelling a foul chemical odor at the train station, police said. There were no reports of serious or life-threatening injuries.

Takashi Nemoto, who runs a small shop in the train station, said people suddenly began running headlong out of the ticket gates. "They were all holding their noses and shouting `it smells!' " he said.

Passenger Kisuke Anamo told NHK, Japan's public broadcasting network, that he suddenly felt a stinging feeling in his throat and then started coughing when he was walking in an underground passageway in the station.

Other people also began coughing at about the same time, he said. "I still feel dizzy and sick."

Yokohama's 507 schools were ordered not to let their 300,000 students go home until it was certain they would be safe.

On March 5, two weeks before the Tokyo attack, about a dozen passengers were taken to a hospital in Yokohama after they inhaled mysterious fumes in a train car and complained of eye and respiratory pain. The source of the fumes was never found.

Separately Wednesday, some passengers aboard a train that passed through Yokohama at about the same time as people were racing out of the station complained of sickness and were taken to hospitals. That train was taken out of service but nothing suspicious was found.