BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) _ The European Union indicated Monday it will step up pressure on the United States to back an Italian to head the new world free-trade agency, now that Mexico's former president is out of the running.

The World Trade Organization, based in Geneva, is in charge of settling international trade disputes involving trillions of dollars in goods and services.

Former Trade Minister Renato Ruggiero of Italy has the backing of the European Union and a majority of the organization's 116 member countries.

But he has faced opposition from the United States, which wanted former Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari until he dropped out of the race last week after his brother was implicated in an assassination.

Asian nations are supporting a third candidate, Kim Chulsu of South Korea.

The Clinton administration has maddened European governments by suggesting they find still another candidate.

The 15 EU foreign ministers reaffirmed their support for Ruggiero on Monday, and French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe hinted he would urge Washington to relent.

``Henceforth, Mr. Ruggiero's candidacy is even more important,'' Juppe told reporters. He said he lobbied several countries on Ruggiero's behalf and promised, ``We'll be talking to the United States, too.''

Juppe played down the possibility that Washington would nominate someone else, saying, ``We hope common sense will prevail and Mr. Ruggiero's candidacy will be successful.''