BEIJING (AP) _ China has signed an agreement to launch an Italian-made telecommunications satellite in the first half of 2001, expanding the Chinese launch industry's foothold in Europe, state media reported today.

The 2.6-ton Satelcom, owned by the Rome-based firm Alenia Aerospazio, will be launched aboard a Long March 3A rocket. It will be the first time that the three-stage rocket has been used for an international launch since its maiden flight in 1994, the official newspaper China Daily reported.

China Great Wall Industry Corp., China's commercial space launch company, and the Italian space navigation firm signed a contract in Beijing on Monday, the state-run Xinhua News Agency said. It said it was the first commercial launch agreement between China and Italy.

China also launched a satellite for Germany in July last year.

China Great Wall has launched 25 satellites, most of them U.S.-made, for foreign customers. But U.S. congressional accusations that China used commercial launches to acquire sensitive U.S. technology has dented prospects for further China-U.S. cooperation. China has denied the accusations.

Zhang Xinxia, China Great Wall's president, said the firm was looking for non-U.S. clients.

``Traditionally, U.S. satellites have accounted for a lion's share of China's commercial launch service,'' the China Daily quoted Zhang as saying. ``We will not forget our old friends but our efforts to make new friends and sign new contracts will continue.''

China Great Wall beat out competitors from Russia, the United States and Europe for the contract, the China Daily reported. Construction of the $100 million Italian satellite will be completed at the end of next year, the newspaper said.

Alenia chose China Great Wall because it ``has a good track record in commercial satellite launches and its price tag was competitive,'' it quoted Giuseppe Viriglio, who heads the Italian firm's space division, as saying.