Violent crime continued to decline in the first six months of 2003 even though there was a slight uptick in murders, according to FBI (search) statistics released Monday.

Those crimes — murder, manslaughter, rape, robbery and aggravated assault — dropped 3.2 percent compared with the same period in 2002. Murders were the only category to see an increase, rising 1.1 percent.

Violent crimes have been dropping steadily over the past five years, particularly in the nation's largest cities. The report Monday showed a 6.5 percent decrease from 2002 to 2003 in these crimes in cities with more than 1 million inhabitants.

Decreases were reported in all regions of the United States, with the Midwest showing the steepest drop at 7 percent. The decreases were 3.2 percent for the Northeast; 2.7 percent for the South; and 1.2 percent for the West.

Attorney General John Ashcroft (search) cited tougher law enforcement methods and stiffer sentences for habitual criminals for driving down the nation's violent crime rate.

"Hardcore criminals are paying unprecedented penalties, and law-abiding Americans are enjoying newfound safety," Ashcroft said in a statement.

The property crimes of burglary, larceny/theft and car theft remained virtually unchanged from year to year, according to the report. Arson, which is measured separately, dropped by 6.9 percent compared with 2002.

The numbers come from 11,921 law enforcement agencies around the country that take part in the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Program (search). The final report for 2003 will be released in the fall.

The preliminary report did not provide figures, only percentages, for the various crime categories.