PRAGUE (Reuters) - The Czech government imposed an immediate ban on all exports of hard liquor on Thursday following the deaths of 23 people from methyl alcohol poisoning, Prime Minister Petr Necas said.
The Czech Republic banned all hard liquor sales in shops and pubs last Friday after the poisonings, believed caused by bootleg alcohol.
It plans to gradually reopen the domestic market from the middle of next week, using new tax stamps and certifications of origin of drinks.
The new export ban, covering all alcohol with over 20 percent alcohol content but not the country's trademark beers, followed information that the European Union was preparing to ban exports on Friday unless the Czech government acted itself, Necas said.
"The government came to the conclusion that it will be more favorable for the Czech Republic to have the imposition and later the lifting of the ban in its own hands," Necas told a news conference after an emergency government meeting.
The government had until Thursday resisted an export ban, arguing that alcohol from major producers was safe.
Slovakia and Poland have already banned imports from the Czech Republic. The two countries take about 50 percent of Czech liquor exports, worth $80 million last year.
Police have charged 30 people with crimes related to bootleg booze after a series of raids in the past days, but have not yet found the origin of the deadly spirits.
Investigators suspect methanol was mixed into bootleg booze made from industrial alcohol and sold under fake labels such as vodka, rum or fruit distillates.
The biggest exporters are the privately-owned Stock Plzen-Bozkov, which makes the bitter Fernet liqueur, and Pernod Ricard's unit Jan Becher-Karlovarska Becherovka, which makes the herb liqueur Becherovka.
The Czech union of spirit makers has estimated that 15-25 percent of all liquor sold in the country of 10.5 million people is bootleg, often made from industrial alcohol and cleaned up through a simple chemical process.
The illicit booze trade is centered in the industrial northeast, near the Polish border. Industry insiders say the trade has grown since a hike in excise tax on alcohol in 2010 which was an austerity measure in response to the global economic crisis.
The Czechs have the world's highest beer consumption of around 140 liters per capita per year and are among the world's heaviest drinkers in general.
(Reporting by Jan Lopatka; editing by Andrew Roche)
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