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More details are beginning to be released about Operacion Puerto, the investigation by a special anti-drug unit within Spain's Guardia Civil, the UCO, that resulted in the detention of Liberty Seguros team boss Manolo Saiz and four others on Tuesday.
Spanish news agencies EFE and Europa Press have said that sources within the Guardia Civil have told them that Saiz was not part of the allegedly illicit blood-doping ring they have been investigating for the past three months, but does appear to have been one of its clients.
Saiz was in a Madrid caf with former ONCE and Kelme team doctor Eufemiano Fuentes and with Jos Luis Merino Batres, the director of a haematology clinic, when the trio were recorded on videotape by the UCO on Tuesday. Saiz is reported to have entered the caf with a briefcase that was later found to contain 60,000 (£45,000) euros worth of currency in both euros and Swiss francs. Fuentes is reported to have been seen entering the caf, located in the same street as Merino's clinic, with a cold-bag. Minutes later, Saiz left the caf with the cold-bag and was later detained, when a search of the bag turned up bags of blood and alleged doping products.
As well as this meeting in the caf, the UCO team are said to have recordings of many leading athletes from several sports entering and leaving Merino's clinic. The recordings have apparently been made over the past three months, although former Kelme rider Jesus Manzano asserted on Spanish TV today that he had been treated in the clinic back in 2003.
According to Spanish sports dailies AS and Marca, Fuentes and Merino have allegedly been charging between 40,000 and 60,000 euros per season for blood 'cleaning' and other treatment.
The UCO team are also said to have found 200 bags of blood and plasma in Merino's clinic, each carrying an identity code belonging to different athletes. It is not known whether the UCO team know the identities of the athletes involved, but Guardia Civil director-general Joan Mesquida said today that the UCO is still examining the evidence found at the clinic and five other sites. He did reveal that "more names of well-known personalities will come to light".
While Saiz has been released - according to La Gazzetta dello Sport because he had a panic attack during questioning - the other four men detained by the UCO remain in custody. As well as Fuentes and Merino, they are former mountain biker Alberto Leon and Comunitat Valenciana's assistant DS Ignacio Labarta, who is thought to have been another client of the blood 'cleaning' operation. CV's team manager Vicente Belda is expected to be interviewed in the coming days as part of the investigation. Leon's role is alleged to have been one of 'carrier pigeon', transporting blood to and from athletes being treated.
In spite of the mounting revelations and the withdrawal of Liberty Seguros from the sport today, it seems that the Liberty riders taking part in the Giro will start tomorrow's 19th stage. "I don't see why we can't start tomorrow," said 'Liberty' team manager Pablo Anton. "We will do so with the jerseys we always wear."
Meanwhile, team leader Alexandre Vinokourov has said that he still expects to ride the Tour de France "either with Liberty Seguros or with another team".
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