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Czechs ban sale of spirits after bootleg booze kills 19

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PRAGUE (Reuters) - 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.

Such a large number of alcohol-related deaths are rare in the country of 10.5 million. But 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 Health Ministry had already banned the sale of spirits by street vendors and market stalls on Wednesday to combat its spread after the first cases appeared at the weekend in the Moravian-Silesian region, 350 km (220 miles) east of Prague.

“Operators of food and beverage businesses ... are banned from offering for sale (and) selling ... liquor containing alcohol of 20 percent and more ... until further notice,” Health Minister Leos Heger said in a broadcast on Czech Television.

The tainted drink has also left around two dozen people in hospital.

A Reuters reporter saw workers at a store in the city centre clearing shelves of liquor shortly after the announcement.

Reporting by Mike Winfrey, Jason Hovet, Robert Mueller and Jana Mlcochova, editing by Diana Abdallah