Sixty people have died in Libya from drinking homemade alcohol and hundreds more been poisoned, the government said on Monday as authorities in the Muslim state vowed a crackdown on booze trafficking.
“The toll of victims from the impure alcohol has reached 60 dead and another 709 cases of poisoning,” Osama Abdejalil, head of the health ministry’s crisis team told a news conference about the poisoning, which broke out on Saturday.
Health Minister Nour Doghman said the poisoning was due to methanol in the cheap brew known locally as Boukha, and Libyans have been urged to stop consuming any form of alcohol.
Methanol, which is also used as fuel, is often mixed with homemade booze in small quantities to strengthen its alcoholic content.
Its health risks include blindness, kidney failure and seizures, and it can be fatal if the methanol content is more concentrated.
Abdejalil said those people affected were being treated in five different hospitals in the capital and that many of them were in intensive care. He added some had been blinded.
With its porous borders, Libya has seen a significant increase in drug and alcohol trafficking since the regime of dictator Moamer Kadhafi was ousted in 2011.
Much of Tripoli’s booze supplies are smuggled in from neighbouring Tunisia, Malta or Algeria.
But locally produced alcohol is much cheaper than foreign imports and is therefore particularly popular among the poorer sections of society.
Boukha, meaning water of life in the local dialect, is made from figs, dates and other fruit, and is often stored in unhygienic conditions.
It fetches around 10 Libyan dinars ($8) a litre compared with between 120-150 dinars ($95-120) for a bottle of whiskey.
The security forces, as well as ex-rebel militia, regularly claim to have busted illegal alcohol distilleries, often hidden on villas and farms in the suburbs of Tripoli.
Libyan customs also frequently announce the seizure of large quantities of alcohol being smuggled into the country.
In December, more than 7,000 bottles of booze were found in a container in Tripoli port, surrounded by cartons of juice.
And there are fears in the overwhelmingly Muslim nation, especially among Libya’s tiny Christian population, of a rise in hardline religious thinking after the revolt against Kadhafi, in which radical Islamists played a major part.