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WAKAYAMA — Investigators probing a festival cyanide poisoning that killed four people and sickened 67 others Saturday evening suspect that a pot of curry served at the event was laced during one of two unaccounted for periods during which the food wasn’t being watched, they said Monday.

Contrary to initial beliefs, police said they now suspect someone mixed deadly amounts of either hydrogen cyanide or sodium cyanide, toxic chemicals often used in metallurgy and agriculture, into the curry before it was brought to the gathering site. They said the large number of people at the festival makes it highly unlikely that the cyanide was put into the curry after the pot was taken there. The cyanide may have been mixed into the curry during a 30-minute period after a portion of the curry was cooked and stored in a garage and before two local residents came back to safeguard it from hungry animals, they said.

About 20 residents reportedly in charge of cooking the curry and watching over it started preparing the staple dish in two large pots at around 8:30 a.m. on Saturday in the garage of a private home. They finished at around noon.

After evaluating the taste and covering the pots with cardboard sheets, they then left the garage and returned to their homes, police said.

Later, two residents came to watch over the food but left the garage for 20 minutes at 4 p.m., police said. The curry was then taken to the festival site at around 6 p.m., heated, and served with rice on disposable plates to the unsuspecting crowd.

Those who ate the curry became sick almost immediately, and more than 40 people were hospitalized after vomiting and collapsing.

After the poisoning had become evident, the curry in the smaller pot and one of the large pots was left uneaten, though no cyanide was found in either one. The other vessel, which was cleaned after the curry was served, is suspected by police to be the pot in which the curry was doctored, the sources said.

The area where the poisoning took place has been the site of many municipal disputes over such issues as parking, property and disposal of garbage, and some reportedly suspect the poisoning may have been a retaliatory attack by one of their own.

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