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By Jacqueline Cowhig
LONDON, March 1 (Reuters) - Asia's share of South Africa's coal exports rose to 61 percent in January, or 2.8 million tonnes, from 56 percent the previous month, although total exports dropped sharply, exporters said.
South Africa exported a mammoth 8.1 million tonnes in December as producers rushed to ship the maximum possible before the close of the calendar year, but the amount fell to a more typical 4.5 million exports in January.
The main exporters, who also own the country's Richards Bay Coal Terminal, are BHP Billiton, Xstrata, Anglo American and Glencore International.
India took 1.3 million tonnes of South African coal in January, 28 percent of the total and down from 1.7 million in the previous month, exporters said.
"India has been buying this year, not in huge volumes and all spot, and it's started to pick up again just lately," one exporter said.
China imported 315,000 tonnes from South Africa in January, down from 944,000 tonnes in December. This figure is likely to show a sharper drop for February, because China has largely been out of the spot market for standard-grade coal.
Asia including India accounted for 61 percent or 2.8 million tonnes of January exports, while the Atlantic market's share dropped to 33 percent or 1.5 million tonnes.
The Atlantic market has kept its roughly 30 percent share of South Africa's exports, with 200,000-300,000 tonnes a month going to Amsterdam-Rotterdam-Antwerp, the main European hub.
During January, Israel, Italy and Spain were the biggest Atlantic buyers.
Reporting by Jacqueline Cowhig; editing by Jane Baird