Indian coal buyers were avoiding shipping from South Africa's Richards Bay Coal Terminal (RBCT), put off by much slower bunker fuelling and higher bunker prices, Indian traders said on Friday.

The Smit Bongani barge which usually supplies bunker fuel to berthed vessels at RBCT is being double-hulled in Durban for three months, shipping sources said.

During this period it is replaced by the Marine Excellence which has a much lower uplift capacity and pumping rate.

There is scarce supply of bunker currently at RBCT and problems with the barges. This is one of the reasons why we are not keen to be lifting South African cargoes at present, one major Indian coal importer said.

It's probably more of a hassle factor than a price factor at the moment. I'm not sure how far bunker prices have risen but the queue for bunkering is quite long, so using the smaller barge is causing delays, a shipping source said.

Indian imports of South African coal are likely to be close to 12 million tonnes in 2009, up from 10 million last year.

Imports always slow during the June-September monsoon season but some importers are still trying to ship South African coal to the Indian ports least-affected by monsoon weather during this period.

(Reporting by Jackie Cowhig)

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