China's Ministry of Public Security today accused Li Hongzhi, the New York-based leader of the banned spiritual sect Falun Gong, of causing the deaths of at least 743 of his followers and issued an international appeal for his immediate arrest.

A police spokesman said Li "spread superstitious and fallacious ideas to deceive the public, causing deaths of practitioners," according to the New China News Agency. The government provided no evidence linking Li to any of the alleged deaths.

A grainy black-and-white photo of Li was shown on Chinese Central Television as a grim announcer read a formal warrant for his arrest. Police and border guards around China were ordered to "make arrangements to track down Li's whereabouts and arrest him."

Today's move was part of a continuing government crackdown on Falun Gong, the exercise and meditation movement Li founded in China in 1992. Since the ruling Communist Party banned the group on July 22, authorities have detained thousands of followers, turned more than 2 million Falun Gong manuals into pulp and launched a campaign to reinforce Marxist ideology.

Issuing an arrest warrant is more of a political than a practical action. Li is a resident of the United States, which shields him from Chinese authorities, and the two nations have no extradition treaty. But China's security services have been embarrassed by Li, who slipped into China in April to organize a 10,000-strong silent protest outside of the red-walled compound where China's leadership lives. Today's announcement offered the police an opportunity to show that they're on the case.

"Li is about [5 feet 8 inches] in height, with slanted eyebrows, single-edged eyelids, a little bit fat, and he speaks standard Chinese with a northeast China accent," said an all-points bulletin.

The police statements followed a government strategy to frame the attack on Falun Gong and its leader in legal terms. In addition to allegedly causing more than 700 deaths, the government charged that Li violated Chinese laws against "disturbing public order." It said Li hadn't applied for permits to hold demonstrations. The result was the "sabotaging of social stability," the police said.

While the police notice did not mention the United States by name, it said that the Chinese government has sent an advisory to members of Interpol asking for "cooperation." The United States is a member of the police organization, which facilitates the arrests of international criminals.

Although cooperation between U.S. and Chinese police has been on the rise in recent years, the charges against Li are viewed largely as political. Falun Gong has an estimated 10 million believers in China, and the government does not tolerate groups that it views as a threat. Human rights activists say the crackdown on Falun Gong violates freedom of assembly and worship. A senior U.S. official said over the weekend that the U.S. government had no plans to extradite Li.

China's state-run media have been filled with gruesome accounts of Falun Gong followers who supposedly killed themselves, murdered family members or died of serious illnesses after refusing medical help because of their faith. Falun Gong holds that cultivating a rotating "orb of energy" in one's belly can lead to physical and spiritual well-being.

A Falun Gong statement released today in New York called on the U.S. government to ensure Li's safety, and noted that Li's mother and younger sister still live in China.