BERLIN (AP) -- German exports were up 7 percent on the month in June, their biggest rise in nearly three years, government figures showed Friday -- the latest signal that prospects are improving for Europe's biggest economy.
The increase followed a slim 0.2 percent gain in May and was the biggest since September 2006, when exports rose 7.3 percent on the month.
Germany's total exports came to euro68.5 billion ($98.6 billion) in June, the Federal Statistical Office said in its preliminary report for the month.
In year-on-year terms, exports were still down a hefty 22.3 percent in June, a slightly smaller drop than the previous month's 24.6 percent.
Rising business confidence and healthy increases in industrial orders have generated optimism recently over the outlook for Germany's export-dependent economy, which went into a deep recession last year.
The export increase was far bigger than economists' prediction of a 0.9 percent rise.
Strong rises in foreign demand have powered recent increases in industrial orders, and "this should cause exports to rise sharply in the next months," said Simon Junker, an analyst at Commerzbank in Frankfurt. "The German economy should now see one or two quarters with strong growth rates."
For the first six months of the year, German exports totaled euro391.8 billion -- down 23.2 percent compared with the first half of 2008.
Imports were up 6.8 percent on the month in June at euro56.3 billion after falling by 1.9 percent the previous month, Friday's figures showed. They were down 17.2 percent on the year.
The good news on foreign trade was dampened somewhat by data showing that industrial production slipped by 0.1 percent on the month in June following a 4.3 percent rise in May -- revised upward from an initial reading of 3.7 percent.
Economists had expected a small increase.
The provisional report from the Economy Ministry showed particularly sharp falls in the production of consumer goods and in the construction sector -- they declined by 1.6 percent and 1.4 percent respectively.
Still, the order pipeline is looking better: data released Thursday showed industrial orders rising by 4.5 percent in June.
Despite signs that the economy will start growing again in the third quarter, unemployment, so far kept in check by widespread use of short-work arrangements, is expected to rise.
Separate data Friday showed that the number of companies filing for bankruptcy protection was up 14.9 percent on the year in May at 2,663.