At least 14 dead in Czech bootleg alcohol scare: minister

At least 14 people have died and more than 20 have been hospitalised in the Czech Republic after drinking spirits apparently tainted with methanol, Czech officials and media said Wednesday.

"The last figure I've heard was 14," Health Minister Leos Heger told journalists. Local media with reporters outside hospitals across the country mentioned 16 dead and almost 30 hospitalised people.

The government on Wednesday banned "sales of spirits with alcohol content over 30 percent at stands and mobile shops with immediate effect," in a bid to stop the wave of poisonings, Heger said.

"It's the first step and if the situation worsens, we would have to tighten it and to basically impose prohibition on all spirits... even in brick-and-mortar shops and restaurants," he added.

Czech media reported that many of those in hospital had been put in artificial comas and were in a critical condition, with some having gone blind.

"We may expect further casualties, looking at the condition of some of the hospitalised people," said Heger.

Prime Minister Petr Necas said thousands of police officers, customs officers and inspection staff were working to try "to prevent this poisonous alcohol from spreading... and to discover the source of the poisoning."

Eastern regions of the country have been hit hardest by what Czech experts describe as the worst wave of alcohol poisoning in three decades.

But the scare has spread since the first two deaths were reported last Thursday, with several cases registered near Prague.

On Sunday, police charged a 36-year-old man in connection with the poisonings, and authorities have started blanket checks at restaurants, canteens and shops selling alcohol.

Another man had been detained in the southeastern city of Zlin for distributing bootleg alcohol, deputy police president Vaclav Kucera told the CT24 news channel.

"We have no evidence of any one person being behind the poisonings. Everything seems to suggest there's a single source, but I cannot rule out that there are more," he said.

"There's also no evidence the products come from a known producer," he added.

Aside from having the world's highest per capita beer consumption, the Czech Republic has the world's second highest adult alcohol intake after Moldova, according to a World Health Organisation survey for 2011.

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