Snack maker Nabisco Holdings Corp. reported a 66 percent increase in first-quarter profits Wednesday on strong cookie and cracker sales, beating Wall Street estimates.

But Nabisco Group Holdings Corp., which owns an 80.6 percent stake of Nabisco Holdings Corp., reported its earnings dropped 38 percent in the quarter because of special items.

Nabisco Holdings, which makes Ritz crackers, Oreo cookies and Planters nuts, earned $60 million, or 22 cents a share, in the three months ended March 31, up from $36 million, 13 cents a share, a year earlier.

The results beat by 2 cents a share the estimates of analysts surveyed by First Call/Thomson Financial.

Shares in Nabisco Holdings were priced at $37.25 at 5:15 p.m. EST on the New York Stock Exchange, down 12 1/2 cents.

The 1999 results were depressed by $9 million, or 4 cents per share, due to restructuring charges. Excluding the charges, Nabisco’s latest earnings were up 33 percent from a year ago.

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Sales increased 12 percent from $1.85 billion to $2.07 billion.

Sales in the company’s U.S. Biscuit division were up 2 percent from a year ago to $881 million, driven by the core cookie and cracker brands as well as new products like Cafe Cremes cookies and Sportz cheese crackers.

The company’s Nabisco Foods division reported a 45 percent increase in sales to $631 million.

International sales were up 1 percent to $577 million, with particularly strong showings in Venezuela and Argentina.

Nabisco Group Holdings, whose only asset its its controllings stake in the operating company Nabisco Holdings, is the successor to RJR Nabisco Holdings which spun off its U.S. tobacco operations last year as legal challenges mounted to cigarette companies.

Investor Carl Icahn, who owns 9.5 percent of Nabisco Group stock, last week has indicated interest in buying Nabisco Group for $16 a share. The company is examining its options and has said it will consider all viable buyout bids.

Nabisco Group earned $47 million, or 14 cents a share, in the first quarter, down from $76 million, or 22 cents a share, a year earlier.

But after excluding special items related to RJR Nabisco transactions in both periods, its earnings were up 29 percent to $45 million, or 14 cents a share, from $35 million, or 11 cents a share, a year ago.

In afternoon trading on the New York Stock Exchange, Nabisco Group shares were up 25 cents a share at $13.12 1/2.