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Algeria plans to become a regular exporter of grain, a senior agriculture official said on Saturday at a ceremony to mark the first time the North African country had exported barley in 43 years.

After a record harvest last year, Algeria, one of the biggest importers of wheat in the world, scaled back imports and has now sold an 11,000-tonne consignment of surplus barley for export to neighbouring Tunisia.

'We plan to continue to export in the next few years,' Noureddine Kehal, the head of the OAIC state grain agency, told Reuters at a ceremony at Algiers port to see off the ship carrying the cargo.

'We still have a large stock of barley, and we can easily export several other cargoes', he said.

'We will export more, but not now because the prices are going down as we are very close to the harvest season,' he added.

Algeria's grain crop usually depends on favourable rains. The government is using a programme of irrigation, incentives for farmers and looser rules on land use to try to raise the harvest consistently, even in drought years.

For the next few years at least, Algeria's grain exports are likely to remain tiny when set against the large quantities of wheat it imports - most of it from France, Spain and Canada.

Imports in the first four months of 2010 were 1.945 million tonnes, according to customs data.

The vessel carrying the barley is still being loaded and will set off later on Sunday, officials said.

'The agriculture sector will become a top economic sector in Algeria,' Agriculture Minister Rachid Benaissa said. 'We can do it,' he added.-Reuters

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