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Saturday, February 7, 1998 Published at 12:01 GMT

World: Asia-Pacific

Chinese president shocked at poison liquor deaths
image: [ President Jiang has ordered a crackdown on makers of illegal alcohol ]
President Jiang has ordered a crackdown on makers of illegal alcohol

At least 27 Chinese New Year revellers have died after drinking poisoned alcohol.

The tragedy happened in the northern province of Shanxi where a batch of of spirits was spiked with toxic methanol.

Hundreds more people were taken to hospital, many of them blinded by the strength of the spirits.

The Chinese President, Jiang Zemin, expressed his shock and ordered a crackdown on those involved in making and distributing the lethal drinks.

Two people were arrested in connection with the incident and another 33 were detained. The Chinese media described it as one of country's worst poisoning cases.

A BBC correspondent in Beijing says the Lunar New Year is usually a time when the Chinese people indulge in family celebrations, accompanied by the best food and drink they can afford.

But for hundreds of people in Shanxi Province, this led to tragedy when one illegal trader diluted a batch of the spirits with methanol -- at more than 900 times the official safety level.

According to local police, the toxic cocktail consisted of 2,400 kg of methanol mixed with 24,000 kg of alcohol. It was bottled and sold on to shops in Shuozhou and Datong cities.

In recent years there have been several similar incidents of traders seeking to make a quick profit by diluting alcohol with the cheapest ingredients.

The BBC correspondent says that with consumer crime now relatively openly reported in China's official media this case has been given particularly high profile coverage.

In the latest sign of President Jiang Zemin's desire to be seen to be responsive to the suffering of his subjects, the official press on Saturday headlined his concern for the victims.

It said Mr Jiang had been shocked at the news and had been personally directing investigations.

Chinese press reports said the Shanxi poisoning was China's ninth major case involving toxic alcoholic drinks since 1992. The eight earlier cases claimed 75 lives and poisoned 700 people.

Fifteen people found guilty of making or selling the alcohol in the previous cases received the death sentence.

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