WASHINGTON (AP) A letter mailed to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle contained a potent form of anthrax that appeared to be the work of experts, the senator and other officials said yesterday while hundreds of people took precautionary doses of antibiotics.

Paul Wong
An New York City Emergency Service police officer sprays a mailbox after removing the contents from the box along Fifth Avenue yesterday.<br><br>AP PHOTO

The FBI was investigating similarities in handwriting and threats between the spore-spiked letter sent to Daschle in Washington and a letter containing anthrax sent to NBC in New York.

“Obviously, these are difficult times,” said Daschle, as the Senate and the nation it represents grappled with the unsettling threat of bioterrorism.

Investigators have found that the strain of anthrax on the letter mailed to Daschle”s office was “a very potent form of anthrax that clearly was produced by someone who knew what he or she was doing,” the majority leader said.

Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), who attended a closed-door briefing on the subject, said the strain found in the letter to Daschle was “very refined, very pure,” making it more dangerous.

Early testing indicates that the anthrax from Daschle”s letter is a purified form that could be used as a weapon, a law enforcement official, said last night, speaking on condition of anonymity. Additional testing was being done late yesterday.

A thousand miles to the south, Floridian Ernesto Blanco lay ill in a hospital with the inhalation form of anthrax, less than two weeks after a co-worker died of the same illness.

In New York, headquarters for many of the nation”s high-profile news media corporations, officials said they expected full recoveries for two people infected with a less lethal form of the disease. They included an NBC news employee and the 7-month-old son of an ABC producer.

Yet, five weeks after terrorist strikes killed 5,000, the nation reeled under a continuing series of disclosures involving letters tainted by anthrax bacteria, spores discovered in a postal facility in Florida, countless innocent scares and not a few malicious hoaxes.

Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge said the government is boosting its reserves of anthrax antibiotics and smallpox vaccine. Officials said later the administration may eventually consider inoculating children for smallpox, which some believe might also be used as a weapon by terrorists.

Since Oct. 1, FBI Director Robert Mueller said, “the FBI has received more than 2,300 incidents or suspected incidents involving anthrax or other dangerous agents.”

Mueller told reporters there were “certain similarities” between the letter opened at NBC and one unsealed in Daschle”s office across the street from the Capitol several days later. Both were postmarked in Trenton, N.J., and Mueller said there were similarities in handwriting, as well. Two officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the letters contained similar threatening messages expressing anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiments and included a pro-Muslim statement.

The Justice Department released photos of the two envelopes, address in handwritten block letters that appear similar. The NBC envelope was postmarked Sept. 16 with no return address and the Daschle letter was postmarked Oct. 8 with a return address from “4th Grade, Greendale School, Franklin Park, NJ 08852.” Officials said there is no such school.

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