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April 7 (Reuters) - Algeria did not have sufficient rainfall during the sowing season, but its grain harvest in summer still may be saved if it gets good precipitation in April, a senior official said on Sunday.
Laid Benamor, chairman of the Algerian cereal committee, in a rare interview said some regions in the east and the center had also been affected by diseases.
"Diseases were registered in the east and central regions. In the west the situation is acceptable ... but I remain optimistic," Laid said.
Algeria, with a population of 35 million, is one of the world's biggest importers of grain at an average of 5 million tonnes in the past five years, including a peak of 7.4 million tonnes in 2011 and 6.9 million in 2012.
"Imports are expected to go down this year as we registered minus 11.26 percent in the two first months in comparison with the same period last year," Laid said.
"Durum wheat imports in the two first months of 2013 are down 60 percent in comparison with the same period last year, but soft wheat imports remain important," he said.
Observers say the Algerian grain crop needs rain during two periods - the sowing season, when moisture is needed to create the right soil conditions for the seed to develop and in March-April to ensure the plants mature properly.
"Our policy, our goal is to do whatever (we can) to reduce our dependency on grain, because the import bill is too high at $2.85 billion in 2011 and $2.11 billion in 2012," said Laid, chairman of the Algerian cereal committee, a body that advises the ministry of agriculture on the best ways to boost local production versus imports.
"For the harvest of 2013, the grain surface is estimated at 3.4 million hectares including 1.4 million hectares for durum wheat and 0.6 for soft wheat and the rest for barley and oat," he said, adding that 600,000 Algerian farmers work in the cereal sector.
"One of our key goals is to rise the yield so we can boost our output in the next few coming years and reduce our imports," Laid said.
Official figures showed average yields of 17 quintals (1,700 kg) per hectare last year.
Algeria's best harvest of the past few years was registered in 2009 at 6.1 million tonnes, but the average of the last five years was around 4.5 million tonnes, which compares with estimated annual consumption of around 7 million tonnes, according to official figures.
Algeria has kept up grain imports in part to build stocks to ensure there is no risk of shortages. (editing by Jane Baird)