UPDATE 3-EU, U.S. step up WTO action in Argentina trade row

* EU, U.S., Japan, Mexico say Argentina blocks their imports

* Argentina accuses others of doing the same

* WTO must now try to resolve the dispute

BRUSSELS/WASHINGTON, Dec 6 (Reuters) - The European Union

and the United States stepped up their fight against Argentine

trade practices on Thursday, formally requesting the World Trade

Organization rule on whether the South American country's import

restrictions are illegal.

The move followed similar challenges from Japan and Mexico,

meaning Buenos Aires is now embroiled in disputes with four

major trade partners, who say its rules discriminate against

foreign goods at a time when trade is central to their hopes of

an economic recovery.

"Argentina's import restrictions violate international trade

rules and harm EU exports," EU trade chief Karel De Gucht said

in a statement. "Today's decision ... is the EU's last resort to

see Argentina's unfair trade practices lifted."

EU trade relations with Argentina have worsened since April,

when President Cristina Fernandez seized control of oil firm YPF

from its parent, Spain's Repsol.

U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said Washington had also

asked the Geneva-based WTO for a so-called dispute settlement

panel, a process which can oblige a country to remove

restrictions or face fines.

Argentina too initiated WTO cases on Thursday, accusing the

EU of curbing imports of its biodiesel, and the United States of

restricting imports of its lemons and beef.

The Argentine Foreign Ministry said the latest drive at the

WTO against its trade policies is just a media ploy.

"Faced with our country's specific complaints, they respond

with a broad action that seeks to distract public opinion

instead of resolving the trade barriers that Argentine products

suffer," the ministry said in a statement.

Brussels and Washington say Argentina requires businesses to

apply for import licenses to be able to sell to Latin America's

third largest economy after Brazil and Mexico.

Buenos Aires does not grant the licenses automatically, as

required by global trade rules, they say.

"Argentina's persistent use of protectionist measures

broadly impacts all U.S. exporters of goods to Argentina," Kirk

said.

The Argentine government turned the same concept on its

head, stating: "Argentina reiterates the need for the countries

that are the epicenter of the global crisis to avoid maintaining

protectionist policies that hinder global trade to the detriment

of developing countries."

The European Commission, which handles trade for the 27 EU

member states, says EU exports affected by the restrictions

range from luxury cars and mobile phones to clothes and food.

Since Argentina tightened restrictions earlier this year,

the EU executive says a de facto barrier to all EU exports to

Argentina has been erected.

Such exports were worth 8.3 billion euros in 2011.

MOST POPULAR IN TECHNOLOGY