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Wednesday, 12 September, 2001, 12:22 GMT 13:22 UK
Bootleg vodka kills 44 in Estonia
Paramedics transfer a victim to hospital in Tallinn
The most serious cases were airlifted to the capital
A total of 44 people are confirmed dead after drinking illicit alcohol in southern Estonia at the weekend.

More than 70 other people are still in hospital, many of them in a coma.

The drink was laced with poisonous methyl alcohol, and sold in refilled half-litre plastic bottles in the seaside resort of Parnu, about 125km from the capital, Tallinn.

Police say they have discovered 800 litres of the suspected total of 2,000 litres of poisoned alcohol.

They say they believe that criminals have destroyed the rest.

Earlier they arrested four people after uncovered a suspected illicit bottling operation.

The Estonian President, Lennar Meri, has called the mass poisoning, which he blamed on illicit "vodka", a national disgrace.


This is not just a case affecting dropouts, there are also normal families involved

Parnu city spokesman
But illicit alcohol consumption is widespread in the former Soviet republic.

Sufferers with symptoms of methyl alcohol poisoning flooded into hospitals in Parnu - about 130 km from the capital Tallinn - on Sunday evening.

Methyl alcohol, or methanol, is used for industrial purposes and can cause blindness and death if consumed.

The most serious cases were airlifted to hospital in Tallinn and Estonia's second city, Tartu.

'Soviet legacy'

An official in Parnu said victims of bad alcohol were usually dropouts, but in this case ordinary families were involved, with parents among the victims.

They are thought to have bought the alcohol on Saturday in refilled plastic bottles from an illicit alcohol distributor in the seaside town.

Estonian President Lennart Meri
President Meri said officials were "lackadaisical" about bootlegging

President Lennart Meri described the deaths as a Soviet legacy.

"Those people in Parnu died from vodka," he said.

"This is the legacy of the Soviet-era way of living and our shame."

He accused officials of negligence towards bootleg alcohol, which, according to Reuters news agency, is estimated to account for 38% of alcohol consumed in Estonia.

Legalisation

Deaths from contaminated alcohol, however, are relatively rare compared to other ex-Soviet republics such as Russia.


The trade brings very high profits, just as the drug business does, and it cannot be eradicated while there is a demand

Estonian police chief Harry Tuul

According to an Estonian newspaper, the last recorded case occurred in 1999 when one person died from methyl alcohol poisoning.

While home-made vodka stills are common in Russia, in Estonia most illicit alcohol is believed to be produced industrially.

Estonia's police chief, Harry Tuul, says there is little his force can do to control the black market trade.

"The trade brings very high profits, just as the drug business does, and it cannot be eradicated while there is a demand," he said.

But the chairman of the Estonian parliament's social affairs committee has said the legalisation of home-made alcohol should be considered.

Toomas Vilosius said people should be allowed to produce alcohol at home, but not sell it.

See also:

17 Aug 01 | Europe
Russia drink death toll soars
11 Oct 00 | Americas
Tainted alcohol kills over 100
17 Nov 00 | Africa
Kenyan drinkers dice with death
30 Jul 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Estonia
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