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The Associated Press

PARIS — A U.S. federal probe into doping in cycling, including whether Lance Armstrong cheated, appears to have made significant headway and is getting closer to its end, say officials who attended or were briefed on meetings between European and American agents this week at Interpol headquarters.

The size of the U.S. delegation, larger than previously known, and the fact that it traveled all the way to France for two days of talks with police officers and other officials from at least three European countries where Armstrong and some of his teammates have competed, trained and lived, was in itself an indication of the importance of the snowballing probe, European officials said.

One European participant said he’d been expecting to meet no more than two or three people at Interpol’s high-security compound in the south-central French city of Lyon. He was surprised to be ushered into a conference room where at least a half-dozen American officials were arrayed across the table.

This official said he told himself: “This is no joke. This is serious, this is hard-nose. It was not a sightseeing trip.”

The official and other participants at the talks or those briefed on them spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity in part because the U.S. delegation requested that the meetings not be discussed publicly. Several European officials said they were concerned that leaks could jeopardize the judicial process and do not want to endanger the probe by talking about it openly and in detail.

“This is a very complex procedure, and it can only work within a judicial frame,” said one European who met with the Americans.

While federal authorities have not disclosed who they are scrutinizing, dozens of interviews by the AP with people involved in the case have pointed to a broad investigation that began with cyclists who had records of doping. It then turned toward Armstrong, who won the Tour de France a record seven times and has consistently denied using performance-enhancing drugs. He has hundreds of clean doping tests as evidence.

At Interpol’s glass and concrete headquarters, which is guarded by an electric fence, security cameras and police, U.S. investigators did not go into detail with the Europeans about their findings, which cyclists they are focusing on or what evidence they have gathered, two European officials said.

However, both came away with the firm impression that the U.S. probe has moved well past its opening stages. One said it appeared to be nearer its end than its beginning. Both said the Americans did not seem to be looking to Europe for evidence upon which to build their whole case.

Instead, the U.S. investigators were interested in how to obtain information that could support evidence already gathered in the United States. At least one meeting focused on the legal procedures that would need to be followed for evidence to be transferred from Europe to the United States, said a senior police officer briefed on the talks.

One of those leading the probe is federal agent Jeff Novitzky, who hounded baseball star Barry Bonds for years and wrung a confession from disgraced Olympic sprinter Marion Jones.

“He’s going through all of Europe’s trash cans. And sometimes you find things in a trash can,” one participant said of Novitzky. “They need supplemental proof to back up everything they have gathered.”

The police officer added that U.S. investigators appeared to be building a significant case.

“As we say in our jargon, they have some marbles to play with,” he said.

Armstrong spokesman Mark Fabiani described the investigators’ trip as wasteful and unnecessary.

“American taxpayer money is being squandered on a European trip for FDA investigators to dredge up old allegations that have already been thoroughly examined and completely discredited,” he said. “All of Lance’s samples were clean when they were first provided and tested, and no amount of tax-money-wasting European meetings can change that fundamental fact.”

Italian prosecutor Benedetto Roberti, who has carried out numerous doping investigations from his base in Padua, said he led a four-member Italian delegation, which included police from Padua and Florence, to the Interpol talks. France was represented by officers from a unit that specializes in sports doping cases and by officials from the French anti-doping agency, the AFLD, which has stored Armstrong’s urine samples from the 1999 Tour de France and some of the six other Tours which the cancer survivor and campaigner also won.

Belgium also sent police and magistrates to the “informal and informative” talks, said Lieve Pellens, a spokeswoman for the Federal Prosecutor’s Office.

Interpol, which has no powers of arrest or investigation but which helps police forces around the world work together, facilitated the meetings and its headquarters offered a guarded and convenient place to meet away from prying eyes.

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