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Police at Liquigas team's hotel, take away Beltran after positive test

AURILLAC, France -- The Tour de France just got dirtier.

Veteran Spanish rider Manuel Beltran was kicked off the scandal-ridden Tour and was taken into police custody to be questioned Friday after testing positive for EPO.

Liquigas cycling team spokesman Paolo Barbieri said Beltran was suspended from the team and that police were searching other Liquigas riders' rooms. If a second backup sample is also positive, Beltran will be fired, Barbieri said.

"When are these idiots going to learn that it's over?" Pat McQuaid, chief of the International Cycling Union, told The Associated Press by telephone. "They continue to think that they can beat the system. They're wrong. The system is catching up all the time.

"It is very damaging to the sport. Once more, the sport suffers."

Beltran tested positive on July 5 after the first stage of the Tour.

"There are not just traces of EPO, there is EPO," Pierre Bordry, leader of the French anti-doping agency, told the AP. "Whether there is a lot or a little, EPO is forbidden."

Bordry said Beltran had been targeted after his "parameters were abnormal" during pre-Tour blood testing July 3-4.

"Yes that was why he was tested on Saturday [July 5]" he said.

He said other cyclists with "suspicious" parameters from the pre-Tour tests also had been targeted, but he would not say who they were.

In a statement to the Europa press news agency, Beltran said: "I
wish to express my desire that neither my team sponsors nor my
colleagues are harmed by these events, for which reason I hope
that no one takes action against them that indiscriminately
harms them.

"Following the usual procedure in these cases, I will
request a test of the B sample and ask that my presumption of
innocence be respected until we have the results of that test."

Race organizers had pledged a tougher approach to combatting drug cheats at this year's Tour. Eight specially trained chaperones shadow riders after each stage, even climbing onto team buses, to ensure cyclists go to post-stage anti-doping checks.

An official of the police division responsible for public health confirmed that Beltran was taken into custody to be questioned as to where he took the drug and where he obtained it. Police have the power to hold Beltran for 24 hours, the official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Liquigas team director Roberto Amadio said Beltran had been released from custody and was on his way to Spain.

The Liquigas team bus arrived at the start of Saturday's eighth stage in Figeac with a police escort of at least 14 motorcycles.

Liquigas spokesman Paolo Barbieri told reporters that the team doctor had known nothing about the EPO and any decision to use it had been taken purely by the rider.

"We are very strict and serious about doping," Barbieri said.

A strong climber, Beltran helped Lance Armstrong win the Tour in 2003, 2004 and 2005, often pulling the Texan up the steep climbs.

Beltran is the fourth former Armstrong teammate to test positive for doping; the others were Floyd Landis, Tyler Hamilton and Roberto Heras.

The Tour was devastated by doping scandals last year, when prerace favorite Alexandre Vinokourov of Kazakhstan tested positive for blood doping; Spaniard Iban Mayo was busted for using EPO; and race leader Michael Rasmussen was kicked out just days before the end for lying about his whereabouts to avoid pre-Tour drug tests.

And in the 2006 Tour, American Floyd Landis tested positive for synthetic testosterone after a spectacular comeback ride that set the stage for his victory. He later was stripped of the title after a long court battle.

None is riding in this year's Tour.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.