'This is a crazy phenomenon,' say police as dozens die from bootleg alcohol

Deaths from drinking toxic bootleg alcohol in Indonesia have exceeded 100 this month, police said as they vowed a "scorched earth" crackdown on the makers and distributors of black-market liquor.

Deputy national police chief Muhammad Syafruddin said deaths have been concentrated in populous West Java and Jakarta, the capital, but there were also cases in South Kalimantan and other regions that have brought fatalities to more than 100.

Indonesian TV has broadcast images of distraught relatives in several cities and lines of trolleys bearing dead bodies in hospital hallways as the death toll climbed since late last week.

There were 31 deaths in Jakarta and satellite cities at the beginning of the month followed by a dramatic surge in West Java.

"This is a crazy phenomenon," Mr Syafruddin said. "If we let it continue, it will harm the nation.

"I have ordered all the police chiefs in Indonesia to make these cases stop, zero victims, meaning to reveal the roots ranging from the producers, distributors, sellers to those who have the idea of mixing alcohol with fatal chemicals," he told reporters.

Police displayed huge quantities of suspect confiscated alcohol at their news conference, some of it in small clear plastic bags as well as professionally labelled bottles purporting to be whiskey or wine.

Mr Syafruddin said production of illegal alcohol must be eradicated completely with a "scorched earth" campaign and called for the co-operation of cabinet and government agencies.

It is unclear how effective the crackdown will be. Curbs on sales of legal alcohol in Muslim-majority Indonesia, including a ban on sales from tens of thousands of convenience stores, have created a significant black market among the country's poor.

Potentially lethal methanol can be a byproduct of bootleg distilling and the tainted alcohol is also sometimes mixed with soft drinks. In the recent spate of deaths, police said pure alcohol was sometimes combined with ingredients such as cough mixture and insect repellent.

Mr Syafruddin said laboratory testing of black-market alcohol seized by police in several raids in Jakarta showed it contained methanol.

Deaths from toxic alcohol are common in Indonesia and foreigners are occasionally among the victims.

Some governments warn travellers to the Indonesian islands of Bali and Lombok to be cautious about consuming local spirits and alcoholic beverages.

But the latest cluster of fatalities is extreme, leading to speculation that a single large distributor was responsible.

West Java police, who have arrested seven people suspected of mixing or selling tainted alcohol, said they have not found evidence to support that.

The Kompas newspaper said there were 32 deaths last year from drinking bootleg liquor.

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