Microsoft on Thursday said it was more than doubling its presence in the European online music market by launching its MSN Music Service in eight more countries.

The company predicted it could overtake rivals such as Napster or Apple's iTunes as the region's leading provider of download music tracks, seen as a vital weapon in the music industry's fight against internet piracy.

The annual value of online music piracy has been put at $2.4bn by industry analysts, with 700m music files available illegally.

Microsoft said its European expansion followed agreements with digital music distributors including Loudeye, the US group that acquired control this year of OD2, the online music business co-founded by pop star Peter Gabriel.

The tie-ups will increase MSN Music's presence from six to 13 countries in Europe, including the Netherlands, Austria and Switzerland. Geoff Sutton, regional general manager for MSN Europe, said: ?Today's announcement sees us extend our reach to more markets in Europe than any other music provider.?

The service will offer about 400,000 tracks by 12,000 artists.

Charles Grimsdale, president of Loudeye's international business, said the latest online service augmenting a rapid expansion of ringtones and subscription music sites could be used on up to 70 portable devices.

Microsoft and its European partners, which include, part of the Modern Times Group, declined to disclose the cost of the European rollout or anticipated demand. Music labels Universal, Sony BMG, EMI and Warner Music were said to be providing content for the service.

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