BHP Billiton Ltd/Plc , the world's largest miner, reported a 30 percent slide in annual profit excluding writedowns, its first fall in seven years, pummeled by a slump in metals prices and demand.

It said on Wednesday there were emerging signs of demand improving in North America, Europe and Japan, but said it was too early to tell if this improvement was driven by real demand or restocking.

In China, its biggest market, it reiterated that restocking of strategic stockpiles was now complete.

Net profit before one-offs fell to $10.72 billion for the year to June from $15.4 billion a year earlier, but 5 percent above analysts' forecasts of around $10.2 billion.

It held its final dividend steady at 41 cents a share, but that raised the full year payout by 17 percent.

While the whole mining sector has suffered from the global economic slump, forcing companies to idle capacity and delay expansion projects, BHP Billiton is seen to be well-positioned with its strong balance sheet to take advantage of any upturn.

(Reporting by Sonali Paul; Editing by Valerie Lee)