Czech police claim success in methanol case

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By KAREL JANICEK, Associated Press

PRAGUE (AP) — Police have arrested two people suspected in a wave of methanol poisoning that has killed at least 25 people in the Czech Republic in the past two weeks, officials said Monday.

State prosecutor Roman Kafka said the two, from the northeastern part of the country, are suspected of producing a "brutal blend" of toxic methanol with drinking alcohol, even though they had to know it could seriously threaten the lives of those who drank it.

Authorities believe this blend has been responsible for all the deaths.

Kafka said the two were working at a plant that uses methanol as an ingredient to produce windshield washer fluid.

He said money was the key motivation. The suspects face up to life in prison if tried and convicted of endangering public health.

Methanol is mainly used for industrial purposes but unscrupulous criminal networks sometimes use it to produce liquor because it's cheap and impossible for consumers to distinguish from drinking alcohol.

Martin Cervicek, the country's top police officer, said investigators believe some 15 metric tons (16.5 U.S. tons) of methanol were originally used to make toxic alcohol and some 15,000 liters (4,000 gallons) of it is still on the market. Cervicek called on Czechs not to drink any alcohol of unknown origin.

Earlier this month, the government took the unprecedented emergency measure of banning the sale of spirits with more than 20 percent alcohol content. That move, criticized by many including President Vaclav Klaus, was followed on Thursday by a ban on the export of spirits to EU countries at the EU request.

Planning to resume spirits sales, Prime Minister Petr Necas has said any new hard liquor produced in the country needs to have a detailed certificate of origin and contain production and distribution details.

Liquors will also have new stamps and sales will be licensed.

With some of the new regulations in place, the government may lift the ban as soon as Wednesday.

"We know where the illicit alcohol came from. We know that our producers did nothing wrong," Agriculture Minister Petr Bendl told Czech public television in Brussels, where he informed his counterparts from other EU nations about the plan on Monday.

Eighteen people remain in hospital, some of them in critical condition, mostly after drinking vodka and rum laced with methanol.

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