Zambia's copper cathode production rose 17 percent to 167,185 tonnes during the first quarter of 2009 compared with the same period last year, the central bank said on Tuesday.

Central bank Deputy Governor Denny Kalyalya also said the southern African country could achieve the 600,000 tonnes of copper projected for this year because the industry was starting to show signs of recovery from the global economic downturn.

Central bank data indicated the first quarter's copper output was the highest in three years, and Kalyalya said this signified an improvement in the mining sector, the country's economic lifeblood.

Data from the Bank of Zambia (BoZ) showed cobalt production slumped by more than half to 600 tonnes in the first quarter of this year compared with 1,244 tonnes in the same period in 2008.

This (Q1) output is a very encouraging development considering what has happened since the second half of last year when the mining industry suffered a severe strain due to reduced prices of copper on the world market, Kalyalya told Reuters.

The BoZ report showed copper exports in the first quarter of 2009 rose to 155,078 tonnes compared with 140,769 tonnes in the three months to March 2008, while cobalt exports declined to 586 tonnes from 1,173 tonnes.

Industry officials say cobalt production declined after Chambishi Metals Plc, the country's largest cobalt producer, was placed under care and maintenance last December.

Despite a reduction in production by the other mines like Luanshya (Copper Mines), the coming on board of Lumwana mine has helped to improve production, Kalyalya said.

Lumwana, which is due to peak production at 170,000 tonnes of copper this year, started producing late last year.

We expect that the resumption of (full) production at Mopani Copper Mines and restart of Luanshya mine production will increase (total) output and we should be able to reach the target (of 600,000 tonnes) this year, Kalyalya said.

Mopani Copper Mines slashed production at its Nkana and Mufulira copper mines following operational problems, while Luanshya Copper Mines closed its Baluba copper mine and Chambishi Metals Plc., but could restart by the end of May after China's NFC Africa took it over last week. (Reporting by Shapi Shacinda; editing by James Jukwey)