Russian media, quoting the emergencies ministry on Saturday, said the largest outbreak had been recorded in Siberia's Irkutsk region, where 650 people had fallen ill and 27 died.

   

More than 200 cases and seven deaths have been recorded in the Perm region in the Ural mountains and 100 cases and three deaths in Volgograd in southern Russia.

   

"News from the regions looks more like figures from a military campaign," Ekho Moskvy, the capital's liberal radio station, said in a report compiling data from across Russia.

 

Alcoholism, coupled with poisoning by low-quality and bootleg liquor, remains one of post-Soviet Russia's most serious problems and contributes to a life expectancy for men of only 59 years, said officials.

   

Pskov, a northwest region near the Baltic Sea, imposed a state of emergency this month to tackle alcohol-related problems, mostly involving hepatitis and other liver diseases.

   

Russian television has shown pictures of patients, many of them with yellow-tinged skin, undergoing treatment in hospitals.

 

Spot checks

 

TV stations have quoted doctors as saying that sufferers often sought help too late.

   

"All these people are from disadvantaged sections of society," Alexander Popov, Irkutsk police spokesperson, told the daily Izvestia.

   

Police have intensified spot checks on shops and liquor plants to try to stamp out the use of deadly additives, like methylated spirits, which boost the alcohol content of a drink.

   

Russia is the world's biggest consumer of vodka and drinking is part of many social occasions.

   

Liquor of all descriptions is available at kiosks on virtually every street corner in major towns, with an average bottle of vodka selling for the equivalent of three to four dollars.