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Europe

Too Much Bang for your Buck?

Last year Germans spent €97 million on fireworks for New Years Eve, and illegal dealers on the Czech-German border are angling for a chunk of the market. Now both governments are working to stop the trade.

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Illegal fireworks confiscated in Germany

The Vietnamese Market in Mnisek, a Czech village in northern Bohemia, lies directly on the border with the eastern German state of Sachsen. Shoppers come here year round to buy cigarettes, alcohol, clothing, even garden gnomes -- all sold much more cheaply than in the German stores across the border.

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New Year's fireworks over the Reichstag

The hottest items at this time of year, however, are fireworks. New Year's Eve is the German holiday for bright explosive displays, complete with roman candles, rockets, firecrackers, and noisemakers. In the Vietnamese Market shoppers can easily buy all these -- plus a few that aren't allowed in Germany.

'Big boom'

"This one here is red and blue, and makes a big 'boom'," one Vietnamese salesman said. And he's not kidding: It's a firecracker known as a Class 3, which has up to 250 grams of explosives in it.

In Germany, people need to have proof of special training in order to make such a purchase. In fact, the same rules apply in the Czech Republic. So why are these fireworks for sale?

One man who has often asked himself that question is Milan Kukla, the vice president of the Czech Arms and Munitions Testing Agency. The agency is responsible for the control of fireworks in the Czech Republic.

The right seal

"You find these illegal fireworks overwhelmingly in the border areas," Kukla said. He hopes to educate consumers against buying the superpowered pyrotechnics.

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Tested, legal fireworks carry a seal, Kukla noted. "The seal shows an approval number and a little Czech lion in an oval, along with the classification of the danger of the product." The illegal fireworks don't have the correct seals.

"Most of the fireworks come from China, and Czech firms just process the half-finished products that are delivered. There are two Czech firms that make a limited number of self-made fireworks," Kukla said.

At the Vietnamese Market, the Chinese fireworks are cheap and easy to find. Nearly every stand has a big selection, and anyone who asks will be shown yet more.

Buyers face fines

While they might be inexpensive, anyone caught transporting them over the border into Germany could face a fine. In the days leading up to New Year's, inspections are stepped up, and lawbreakers face serious fines.

The Czechs are doing their part to stop the business as well, a direct result of the country's entry into the European Union last May. Kukla and hundreds of his colleagues, including police and customs officials, are on the lookout for the illegal explosives.

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Packs of fireworks in store, New Year's

"This year, we are very quick. We already have 27 arrests, mostly against Vietnamese and Chinese sellers. Recently we discovered a huge illegal delivery, two trucks full of illegal fireworks."

The investigators now have more powers to search, and can levy immediate fines of €150 ($205). Courts can administer fines of up to €400,000 ($544,000).

Unfortunately, these successes haven't done much to stop the illegal trade. Not only in Mnisek, but in many other markets on the border between the countries, dangerous and untested fireworks are readily available. The cheap fireworks are often louder than those that are legally approved, and can cause eardrum damage. And the higher levels of explosives frequently lead to severe injuries to the face and hands.

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