BANGKOK, April 23 (Reuters) - Thailand's customs-cleared annual exports increased at a slower pace in March compared with the previous month, due partly to a high comparative base last year, and the growth was slightly below forecast. Exports, a key driver of Thailand's growth, rose 7.06 percent in March from a year earlier after increasing 10.3 percent in February, but the March value was a record high, commerce ministry data showed on Monday. That slightly missed the median forecast of an 8 percent rise from economists polled by Reuters. The gains were led by stronger shipments of cars and parts, computers and parts, and chemicals. Imports in March were up 9.47 percent from a year earlier after jumping 16 percent in February, and compared with a forecast of an 11.6 percent increase. That resulted in a trade surplus of $1.27 billion in March, more than a forecast of a $700 million surplus, and compared with a surplus of $808 million in February. Demand from most key markets were higher in March, except for China, which contracted 8.7 percent year-on-year due to a high base last year, Pimchanok Vonkhorporn, a commerce ministry official, said at a briefing. In the January-March period, exports rose 11.29 percent from a year earlier while imports jumped 16.16 percent. The ministry targets an export growth of 8 percent this year, after a 9.9 percent rise last year, despite a strong baht. The baht has risen 3.9 percent against the dollar so far this year, hovering over four-year highs against the greenback. (Percentage change from a year earlier, in dollar terms; figures may not add up exactly due to rounding): March Feb Jan Dec Exports (pct y/y) +7.06 +10.3 +17.6 +8.6 ($US bln) 22.36 20.37 20.10 19.74 Imports (pct y/y) +9.47 +16.0 +24.3 +16.6 ($US bln) 21.09 19.56 20.22 20.02 Trade balance ($US bln) +1.27 +0.81 -0.12 -0.28 ($1 = 31.37 baht) (Reporting by Kitiphong Thaichareon; Additional reporting and writing by Orathai Sriring Editing by Gopakumar Warrier)
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