By Jason Hovet and Jana Mlcochova
PRAGUE, Sept 14 The Czech Republic indefinitely banned all sales of liquor with more than 20 percent alcohol on Friday after 19 people died from drinking bootleg vodka and rum containing poisonous methanol.
Authorities have tried for a week to find the source of the central European country's worst outbreak of alcohol-related deaths in decades.
The Health Ministry had already banned the sale of spirits by street vendors and market stalls on Wednesday to combat the outbreak after the first deaths happened last weekend in the Moravian-Silesian region, 350 km (220 miles) east of Prague.
Health Minister Leos Heger said the ban had been widened to include bars, restaurants, shops and supermarkets after evidence showed some of the tainted alcohol was bought there.
"The initial ban ... was widened to a total ban everywhere, starting today," Heger said in a broadcast on Czech Television.
The ban applies to all brands of spirits - imports as well as the domestic labels that dominate the market - leaving many of the cocktail bars that usually would have been bustling at the start of the weekend with fewer customers and signs announcing the ban hanging over the bottles.
Workers at a supermarket in the city centre cleared the shelves of liquor shortly after the announcement.
While also packing up his bottles, convenience store owner Tony Nguyen said 30 percent of his business was from selling such spirits. "If the ban is for a few days, it's OK. But if it's long term, that will be a problem," he told Reuters.
Heger was quoted by newspaper Mlada Fronta Dnes's website as saying the ban could be several days. The tainted moonshine has left around two dozen in hospital, many in induced comas or experiencing blindness.
The Czech Republic, as the home of Pilsner, has the world's highest beer consumption per capita, at more than 140 litres, The average consumption of hard liquor is 7 litres.
But such a large number of alcohol-related deaths are rare in the country of 10.5 million, whose capital in particular has become a popular destination for hen and stag parties from oversees because of its beer halls and lager culture.
State and industry officials have estimated that illegal alcohol sales are on the rise in the European Union member and account for 10-20 percent of the market.
The country's biggest spirit makers are privately owned Stock Plzen-Bozkov, which makes vodka, Fernet liquor and a Czech rum called Tuzemak; and fruit brandy maker Rudolf Jelinek, whose 2010 revenue reached 367 million crowns ($19.80 million), with a third of that from exports.
French Pernod Ricard's Jan Becher unit makes Becherovka liquor. All three are members of the Czech Union of Spirits Producers and Importers, which represent 81 percent of the market.
The association's head, Petr Pavlik, told Czech Television that none of the group's 12 members' products were harmful.
"We are losing hundreds of millions of crowns, the situation is really devastating," said Pavlik, who is also managing director for Stock Plzen-Bozkov.
The ban does not apply to exports, Health Ministry spokesman Vlastimil Srsen said, adding the country had nonetheless been in contact with countries such as Poland, just in case, but had not been informed of related cases.
"At the moment it seems it only concerns the Czech distribution network," he said. "So far we do not have any information from abroad that there would be any problem."
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