BRUSSELS - Only a handful of wealthy nations are tackling bribery by companies vying for lucrative contracts abroad as a worldwide crackdown launched 15 years ago is weakened by the global economic downturn, a watchdog said on Thursday.

The United States and Germany led efforts last year to catch companies and officials who use bribes to seek deals and influence, with about 450 foreign bribery-related cases between them that ended in litigation or settlements, a 25 percent rise on 2010, Transparency International said in a report.

But while Britain and Italy, under reformist Prime Minister Mario Monti, stepped up the fight against bribery in 2011, the report said Japan had only brought prosecutions in two foreign bribery cases in the past 12 years, a very low number given the size of its economy.

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