Former Mitsubishi Motors Corp. President Katsuhiko Kawasoe and five other former executives were arrested Thursday for alleged professional negligence that resulted in a fatal accident involving a Mitsubishi truck in Yamaguchi Prefecture in 2002, police said.

The move represents yet another blow for the scandal-tainted automaker, whose sales have plunged in the wake of a series of defect coverups.

The six were arrested by prefectural police in Yamaguchi and Kanagawa on suspicion that the fatal accident was caused by a defect in the vehicle’s clutch system.

The five executives are Fumikazu Yokogawa, 66, former vice president; Yuzo Murata, 66, former director; Takashi Usami, 63, a former vice president of Mitsubishi Motors and former chairman of Mitsubishi Fuso Truck & Bus Corp.; Hirotoshi Suzuki, 65, former chief of the quality and technology department; and Tatsuro Nakagami, 61, a former deputy at the department.

Usami has already been indicted on charges of violating the Road Trucking Vehicle Law in connection with another fatal accident in Yokohama in 2002.

Investigators said Kawasoe has admitted to the allegations.

MMC President Yoichiro Okazaki issued a statement after Kawasoe’s arrest, saying: “We take this matter very seriously and intend to fully cooperate in investigations to shed light on circumstances surrounding the incident.

“We would like to take this opportunity to pray that the victim of the accident may rest in peace and offer our most sincere apologies to the bereaved family.”

Okazaki also expressed the “deepest apologies for all the trouble and concern.”

Okazaki was in Okayama Prefecture on a business trip Thursday.

Speaking at a news conference held at the prefectural office after a meeting with Gov. Masahiro Ishii, Okazaki declined to comment on the arrests, saying he had not yet confirmed the facts surrounding the case.

Investigative sources said the automaker considered a possible recall of trucks at meetings held between March and May 1996, following a series of clutch system problems. It was apparently aware that the defects, if not addressed, could lead to serious accidents.

Instead of an open recall for repairs, however, MMC conducted secret repairs of relevant trucks, and suspended these repairs when it emerged in July 2000 that it had failed to recall its vehicles for other components problems, they said.

Police believe the fatal accident in Yamaguchi could have been avoided if MMC had moved to issue an open recall of the trucks, the sources said.

Kawasoe and other MMC executives would have been aware of this possibility and can be held responsible for the fatal accident, they said.

In the accident in Yamaguchi Prefecture, the 39-year-old driver of a 9-ton truck lost control of the vehicle due to an alleged defect in its clutch housing on Oct. 19, 2002.

The truck was unable to stop, passing through an expressway tollgate and hitting a building. The accident killed the driver.

Police suspect that one of the truck’s propeller shafts came off the chassis due to the defective clutch housing and damaged the braking mechanism.

At the time of the accident, Yamaguchi police believed the cause was the driver’s violation of the Road Traffic Law and sent the case to prosecutors with the suspect identified as deceased.

Mitsubishi Fuso, spun off from MMC in 2003, recalled the trucks for repairs of defective clutch systems last month.

MMC and Mitsubishi Fuso have recently admitted trying to cover up defects in Mitsubishi trucks.

Nobuteru Ishihara, minister of land, infrastructure and transport, issued a statement saying that it was “extremely regrettable” that an automaker, which should be placing the utmost priority on safety, could have neglected to attend to such a problem as a system defect for so long.

He said the ministry would take steps to beef up the existing recall system to prevent a recurrence of such coverups.

The family of the driver, meanwhile, has expressed anger over MMC’s failure to promptly address the issue of the potentially dangerous clutch housing.

“The fact that the arrests were made is practically synonymous with having had my brother killed by these executives,” the 33-year-old brother of the trucker said.

But “those who have passed away will not return. The wounds of my heart will never heal,” he added.

Okazaki asks for help

KYOTO (Kyodo) Mitsubishi Motors Corp. President Yoichiro Okazaki asked Thursday for local support for the scandal-mired automaker’s plan to relocate its head office to Kyoto from Tokyo.

Okazaki made the request at meetings with Kyoto Mayor Yorikane Masumoto and Kyoto Gov. Keiji Yamada.