The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has picked up strong international support to expand its operations in the poorest seven countries of Eastern Europe and Central Asia. The bank is holding its annual meeting in London.

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has received the endorsement of Britain and the United States to increase its lending to the seven poorest countries among the 27 nations eligible for assistance.

The seven targeted countries are Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Bank officials say several of the other eligible countries in Central Europe no longer need much aid from the bank, enabling it to focus on the poorer countries farther east.

The president of The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, Jean Lemierre, spoke of the challenges to the region as he opened the bank's annual meeting.

"Some countries are lagging behind. And this is a concern for us, a cause for serious concern," he said. "The region is doing better, but the international community has singled out seven countries, which are poorer, and they deserve special attention."

British Prime Minister Tony Blair told the delegates his country will give money and advice as the London-based bank expands its operations.

"There is still a major role for the bank in countries further east and south," he said. "The bank needs to make a more concerted effort in those countries of the region which are at an early stage of transition. These countries require substantial help to reduce poverty, to promote growth and tackle corruption, organized crime and HIV-AIDS."

The chief of the U.S. delegation, Deputy Treasury Secretary Samuel Bodman, also endorsed the bank's move eastward, where he said lending should concentrate on small and medium-sized businesses.

Mr. Bodman told reporters the United States also supports the bank's recent decision to reduce lending Uzbekistan's government because of human rights concerns. He also announced U.S. support for Mongolia to become eligible for EBRD loans.

Coinciding with the meeting, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has issued its 2004 economic forecast, predicting growth of 4.9 percent in the region this year, the sixth consecutive year of expansion.