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UPDATE 2-S.Korea's Iran crude imports for Feb drop 30 pct y/y
* Crude imports from Iran in Feb at 3.97 mln bbls -KNOC
* Total Feb crude imports at 79.75 mln bbls, down 1.3 pct y/y
* Dec of 2012-Feb of 2013, Iran crude imports at 173,267 bpd (Recasts with outlook for March imports)
By Meeyoung Cho
SEOUL, March 22 (Reuters) - South Korea's imports of Iranian crude fell nearly a third in February from a year ago, and could plunge even further in March given a heavy refinery maintenance schedule.
The world's fifth largest crude oil buyer and one of Iran's top four customers bought 141,929 barrels per day (bpd) in February, in line with estimates from industry sources who had also forecast a fall to 60,000 bpd this month.
South Korea's purchases of Iranian oil last month were down 30 percent from a year ago on a daily basis, data from the state-run Korea National Oil Corp showed.
Imports have fallen as European Union sanctions made it tough to deliver, insure and pay for the oil. The West has been also heightening its sanctions on Iran as it suspects Tehran wants to develop nuclear weapons, which Iran denies.
March is not only when northern hemisphere winter demand ebbs. South Korea's two buyers of Iranian crude, SK Energy and Hyundai Oilbank, will shut a combined 560,000 bpd of refinery capacity for planned maintenance between March and June.
Crude imports from Iran in the first two months of the year dropped 23.7 percent from the same period last year to 9.87 million barrels, the data showed.
South Korea's total crude oil imports for the month came in at 79.75 million barrels of crude oil in February, down 1.3 percent from a year earlier, according to KNOC's data.
South Korea, which reduced crude imports from Iran by 36 percent to 153,400 barrels per day last year, is aiming for a 20 percent cut year on year in the six months to May 31 to secure an extension to a sanctions waiver when it comes up for renewal in May.
Korea imported 173,267 bpd of Iranian oil from December through February, according to Reuters calculation reflecting the latest KNOC data, versus 184,727 bpd from December 2011 through May 2012.
To meet the target of reducing Iranian imports, South Korea will have to cut nearly 25,500 bpd or 15 percent from the December-February rate. (Reporting by Meeyoung Cho; Editing by Tom Hogue and Michael Urquhart)
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