China's iron ore import slump extends into April - customs

* April iron ore imports at 86.06 mln T, down 12.7% on year before

* Jan-April imports at 354 mln T vs 381 mln T a year before

* Steel exports at 4.98 mln T last month, imports at 0.96 mln T

By Min Zhang and Dominique Patton

BEIJING, May 9 (Reuters) - A slump in Chinese iron ore imports extended into April, as suppliers struggled with disruptions while a COVID outbreak suppressed demand.

The world's top iron ore consumer took in 86.06 million tonnes of the material in April, 12.7% less than a year earlier, implying ongoing weak activity in the country's steelmaking industry.

Imports of the ore, a key material for making steel, were 1.4% lower than in March, when the volume was already down 14.5% on a year before - due to the same factors. The General Administration of Customs issued the data on Monday.

Production by miners, including BHP BHP.AX , Rio Tinto RIO.L and Fortescue Metals Group FMG.AX in Australia, has been disrupted by supply-chain snags and pandemic-induced labour shortages, while Brazil's Vale has also had weather problems.

In China, the pandemic is also restricting transportation of steelworks' raw materials and product, suppressing their demand.

"The recovery of shipments from major miners was mild in April and two of the lesser supplier countries - Ukraine and Russia - suspended exports due to their conflict," said Cheng Peng, analyst with SinoSteel Futures.

In January-April, China imported 354.4 million tonnes of iron ore, down 7.1% from the same period a year earlier, according to the customs administration.

"Supplies from Vale are expected to improve after the first quarter ... but supply restriction in Australia could continue until the second quarter," Cheng said.

The Monday data also showed China exported 4.98 million tonnes of steel last month, up from 4.95 million tonnes in March but well below the 7.97 million tonnes of a year earlier, when traders were ramping up shipments ahead of removal of most steel export tax rebates.

Steel imports in April came in at 956,000 tonnes, falling below 1 million tonnes amid surging overseas prices, the customs data showed.
Reporting by Min Zhang and Dominique Patton; Editing by Christian Schmollinger and Bradley Perrett

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