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BERLIN, June 14 (Reuters) - Germany's arms sales record drew criticism on Wednesday after data showed a rise in weapons exports last year, with the government's political opponents saying that showed failings in a policy aimed at stemming armament sales to volatile regions.
In 2014, Social Democrat (SPD) Sigmar Gabriel, then economy minister and now foreign minister, introduced tighter controls on arms exports to conflict zones in particular, but in 2016 the three biggest buyers were Qatar, Algeria and South Korea.
Three months before an election, the economy ministry's annual arms report showed conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel's cabinet approved 6.85 billion euros ($7.7 billion) of military equipment exports, including weapons, overall in 2016.
That was about 1 billion euros lower than last year in all but weapons exports, which can lag order approvals by years, were up 1 billion from 2015. More than half of the 2.5 billion of sales were to non-EU or non-NATO countries.
"The 'Made in Germany' death business is booming," the head of the pacifist opposition Left party, Katja Kipping, said.
More than 70 years after World War Two, Germany is reluctant to send troops on foreign missions but has long encouraged military exports and has been ranked the world's fifth biggest major arms exporter by the SIPRI research institute.
The industry employs about 80,000 people.
A ministry spokesman pointed to the fall in order approvals for arms overall, including communications equipment, protection vehicles and mine clearing kit, and to a roughly 1 billion euro drop in approvals for equipment orders in 2016 to 1.88 billion.
In the first four months of this year, the government approved 2.42 billion euros of military equipment orders, down from 3.3 billion in the same period last year.
Germany's Heckler and Koch, one of the world's best-known gun makers whose G36 is standard issue for armies across the globe, has blamed restrictions on exports to the Middle East for a sharp fall in operating earnings.
But opposition parties stepped up calls for a ban on weapons sales to dictatorships or states with a history of rights abuse.
"Exports are increasing rather than falling. Promises have not been kept. As economy minister, Gabriel fuelled crises with this policy that he's now having to sort out as foreign minister," Greens political director Michael Kellner said. (Reporting by Madeline Chambers; Additional reporting by Gernot Heller and Michelle Martin; Editing by Louise Ireland)