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Japan pop group AKB48 cancels events as attack on 2 members, staffer raises security concerns

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TOKYO - Japan's hugely popular female pop group AKB48 cancelled fan events Monday after a saw-wielding man attacked two members and a staffer, shocking the nation and raising questions over security.

The two group members, Anna Iriyama, 18, and Rina Kawaei, 19, suffered hand and head injuries, and the male staffer who tried to stop the attack Sunday at a fan event in northern Japan had cuts on his hand. All three left the hospital by late Monday.

The women, wearing hats and covering their hands with white towels, appeared in front of a huge crowd of reporters outside the hospital and thanked fans for their concern.

"We've caused you worry, but we are returning to Tokyo now," Kawaei said. "Thank you very much."

The attack on the group, whose members are dubbed "idols you can meet" because of their fan events, has rattled people in a nation known for public safety. The news topped TV entertainment shows and even the two nationwide newspapers Yomiuri and Mainichi.

On Sunday, the group gave a mini-concert for hundreds of fans in Takizawa city which was followed by a handshaking event, in which fans who buy special CDs can shake hands and chat briefly with their favourite member. As soon as the handshaking event started, a man took a foldable saw from his jacket and went toward the two women, who were standing at the entrance of one of several tents set up inside a gymnasium.

Police arrested Satoru Umeta, a 24-year-old unemployed man, on suspicion of attempted murder.

Iwate prefectural police official Takahiro Fujibayashi said Umeta told investigators that he was not an AKB48 fan and just wanted to commit random murder.

Fujibayashi said there were no full security checks of bags and the suspect might have hidden the saw inside a bag he had at the time of his arrest.

AKB manager Hiroshi Yuasa told reporters he believed the security checks were appropriate but would review safety measures.

Dozens of AKB48 handshaking events are held in Japan every year. Bouncers — called "peelers" here — are assigned to these events to remove fans who linger, but no major attacks have been previously reported.

"It's nice they are close to the fans, but we have to remember there is a possibility that people like (the attacker) may sneak in," popular talk show host Seiji Miyane said on his NTV program. He said handshaking is one of the main appeals of AKB48 but the risk needs to be reduced.

Twitter and other social networking sites were flooded with comments about the incident, many of them raising concerns about security checks. AKB48 members kept quiet about the case.

"Such an incident should never have happened. Even if they recover from their physical injuries, their emotional scars will never heal," former AKB48 member Erena Ono tweeted.

AKB48 management announced Monday it was cancelling a concert at its main theatre in Tokyo's Akihabara district, as well as several other events around Japan. Affiliates SKE48 in central Japan and NMB48 in Osaka also cancelled or postponed events.

Established in 2005, the group has a rotating cast of more than 90 young women and affiliates across the country and in Indonesia, China and Taiwan.

AKB48 and its affiliates have regularly held charity concerts in northern Japan since March 2011 to cheer up fans in the disaster-hit region.

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Associated Press writer Ken Moritsugu contributed to this report.

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