LEVERKUSEN, Germany (AP) _ German chemical giant Bayer announced today a 17 percent increase in first-quarter profits and a more moderate rise in group sales compared to last year, despite a decline in sales in Asia.

Profits rose to 858 million marks ($477 million) from 710 million marks in the first quarter of 1997. Group sales rose by 1.1 billion marks to 14.34 billion marks.

Of the sales increase, 700 million marks resulted from strong demand and 400 million marks from favorable currency exchange rates, Bayer said.

Sales and profits should grow by at least 4 percent this year, Bayer said.

First-quarter sales growth took place across all business segments. By region, Europe, North America and Latin America saw the largest increases, Bayer said. In Asia, however, sales declined 4 percent, the group said.