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BRUSSELS (AP) - European Union antitrust regulators said they made surprise raids on the offices of drug makers in several European nations Wednesday to seek evidence that they struck anticompetitive business deals or used a dominant market position to squeeze rivals.

They did not name the companies and said the raids were a preliminary step in an antitrust investigation. If they find the firms guilty, they can fine them up to 10 percent of annual global turnover.

In October, pharmaceutical companies Sanofi-Aventis SA, Novartis AG and Ratiopharm International GmbH said their French offices had been raided.

The EU's competition commissioner Neelie Kroes warned in July that major drug makers face a wave of antitrust investigations. The EU concluded a broad inquiry into the pharmaceutical sector by saying that drugs companies are deliberately stalling cheaper generic versions of their own medicines once exclusive patents expire.

Until now, the EU has only gone public about one other investigation involving France's Les Laboratoires Servier for hindering the launch of generic versions of its heart disease drug perindopril.

Regulators said they suspected that Servier did deals with generic rivals Krka, Lupin, Matrix, Niche Generics Ltd and Teva to hold back cheaper versions.

The EU says generic drugs are on average 40 percent cheaper than their branded rivals two years after they launch. It warned that it knew of at least 200 settlement agreements - some including payments to delay drug launches - between generic and brand-name drug makers that could restrict the rollout of generic versions.

 

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