UPDATE 1-Zimbabwe says needs maize urgently after dry spell
* Imports needed to avert food shortages
* Extended dry spell hits crop output
(Adds details, background)
HARARE, Feb 3 (Reuters) - Zimbabwe needs to urgently import 500,000 tonnes of maize to avert shortages after the staple crop was hit by an extended dry spell, its agriculture minister was quoted as saying on Wednesday.
Joseph Made told the state-controlled Herald newspaper that the Finance Ministry should, for now, import 500,000 tonnes of grain, a quantity which in the past formed the country's strategic grain reserve.
"What is critical is that the Ministry of Finance should already start work on the basis of the national grain reserves, which are known to be 500,000 tonnes," Made said.
"The Ministry of Finance cannot wait any longer. It should start working now."
Zimbabwe has not had grain reserves for more than a decade.
The southern African country, which is struggling to recover from a decade of economic collapse, has relied on food aid and imports since 2001, after President Robert Mugabe's government seized white commercial farms to resettle landless blacks, most of whom were poorly equipped and underfunded.
A unity government formed between Mugabe and longtime rival Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai had raised hopes the era of shortages had ended but an extended dry spell has destroyed crops, forcing the government to import food again.
Made said the government would produce its first crop assessment report on Feb. 15.
Zimbabwe's farmers have forecast a disastrous season and a farmers' union said on Monday the country needs to import more than half its annual grain requirements of 2 million tonnes.
The country's coalition administration says it needs at least $10 billion to rebuild the shattered economy but has struggled to raise funds to finance its needs. Grain imports will exert added pressure on its already scant resources.
Critics say Mugabe, who turns 86 this month and has been in power since independence from Britain in 1980, escalated the country's economic collapse by seizing the white-owned farms.
Mugabe in turn says drought has caused food shortages and that Western sanctions were imposed on his past government as punishment for the land seizures, worsening the situation. (Reporting by MacDonald Dzirutwe; Editing by Muchena Zigomo)