SOFTS-ICE sugar firms, cocoa hits 9-month low
* Arabicas market avoids coffee leaf rust in Centam
* ICE raw sugar seen trading near 18.0 cts/lb in near term
* Cocoa trade sees ample W. Africa mid crop production
(Adds trade comment, updates prices)
LONDON, March 4 (Reuters) - ICE raw sugar futures firmed on Monday but remained near a 2-1/2-year low weighed by ample global supplies, while arabica coffee edged up and cocoa hit a nine-month low, pressured by expectations of big crops.
May raw sugar firmed 0.16 cent, or 0.89 percent to 18.07 cents per lb at 1515 GMT. The front-month contract dipped to 17.61 cents a lb on Thursday, the lowest level since August 2010, as hefty global supplies weighed.
On Friday, ICE raw sugar futures dropped the most in almost two months, close to Thursday's 2-1/2-year low, as renewed worry about the global economy sank markets already pressured by ample supplies.
"The market feels comfortable around 18 cents, with any movement below that resulting in short covering or destination buying," said Keith Flury, a senior soft commodities analyst with Rabobank.
May white sugar on Liffe was little changed, up 70 cents or 0.14 percent to $514.60 a tonne in thin volume of 2,161 lots.
"We suspect the market will be more sensitive to bullish news than to bearish news, as the stats (supply-demand balance data) are already written into prices," said Nick Penney of brokerage Sucden Financial.
China will take measures, including managing sugar import quotas and through state stockpiling, to support domestic prices and protect the interests of local farmers, a government official said in comments published on Monday.
The Brazilian government plans to exempt fuel ethanol from certain taxes that if approved by regulators could be equivalent to 10 percent of the pump price, the Valor Economico newspaper reported on Monday.
India is set to consider relaxing controls on the sugar industry, a minister said on Monday, as the prospect of high output this year creates the conditions for liberalisation without a sharp rise in prices.
COCOA MID CROPS
ICE second-month cocoa futures touched a nine-month low, as anticipated forward sales weighed on prices.
"The West African crops will be pretty good, and we might need to focus on the 2013/14 main crops before we see support for cocoa," Flury said.
May cocoa futures on ICE were down $23 or 1.1 percent at $2,059 per tonne, above a nine-month low of $2,058 per tonne for the second month touched earlier in the session.
May cocoa on Liffe dipped 19 pounds or 1.35 percent to 1,387 pounds a tonne, having earlier touched a 10-month low of 1,386 pounds.
Widespread rains have arrived in West Africa, providing welcome relief to cocoa producers who were getting concerned that the harmattan season was leading to too dry conditions for the developing mid crops, Macquarie Bank said in a report.
"This is likely adding to the bearish near term sentiment on New York cocoa," Macquarie Bank said.
ICE May arabica coffee rose 0.45 cent or 0.3 percent to $1.4380 per lb, above a 32-month low of $1.3760 touched on Feb. 19 on expectations of big crops from Brazil, the world's biggest coffee producer, Colombia and Peru, which should help offset any Central American losses in 2012/13.
The arabicas futures market is ignoring the alarming spread of the coffee leaf rust disease across Central America's coffee growing regions, Macquarie Bank said.
"With more than 25 percent of the crop currently infested, fighting the disease could involve a 10-plus year problem," it said.
May robusta coffee futures on Liffe edged $8 or 0.38 percent lower, to $2,107 a tonne in slim volume of 2,241 lots.
Colombia's government raised a subsidy to coffee farmers on Saturday and called for them to end a strike, but farm leaders said they will continue protesting and blocking roads because they want buyers to pay a minimum price for beans.
(Editing by Alison Birrane and James Jukwey)