Consumer products giant Unilever banked a 16 per cent rise in profits yesterday but warned of tough sales conditions in the UK and Europe.

The Anglo-Dutch firm, which makes Dove Soap, Hellmann's mayonnaise and Birds Eye fish fingers, posted first half pretax profits of £1.81 billion following a strong performance in India and China.

It said it was confident of three per cent to five per cent sales growth over the full year despite a "modest" six months in the UK and lower ice-cream sales than last year.

The company said ice-cream sales in Europe were lower than last year despite the recent heatwave.

The ice-cream business includes Magnum, Carte D'Or, Walls and Solero.

Unilever chief executive Patrick Cescau said: "The ice-cream season started slowly because of the later Easter but picked up well in the second quarter, although sales were still slightly behind a strong quarter last year."

The downturn came as overall group sales across Europe grew by just 0.3 per cent in the first half of the year as increased volumes were offset by price cuts.

Mr Cescau said conditions in Western Europe "remain tough" but added that demand has now "picked up slightly".

He said the company performed well in the Netherlands while the UK and Italy "returned to modest levels of growth". However, sales were down in France and Germany.

The weakness in Europe contrasted with 3.2 per cent sales growth in the United States and the rest of the Americas and eight per cent growth in Asia and Africa where the company said markets were "buoyant".

Unilever said there was double-digit sales growth in India while China continued to grow "very strongly" which sent group sales up three per cent for the half to £13.47 billion.

Mr Cescau was confident the company would hit its targets for the year despite rising costs, including fuel.

He said the results represented a return to competitiveness following a shock profits warning in 2004. Shares closed down 75p at 213.