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SHANGHAI, April 5 (Reuters) - Eighteen districts in northern China's heavily polluted Hebei province will ban the sale of coal by end-June ahead of a complete ban on residential coal use in October, the official Xinhua news agency reported on Wednesday.
Hebei, home to six of China's 10 smoggiest cities in the first two months of the year, is on the frontline of China's three-year war on pollution, and has targeted cutting coal consumption by 40 million tonnes over 2013-2017.
It has identified the use of coal by households and small businesses as one of its main targets this year as it battles to improve air quality.
In a new action plan aimed at controlling coal consumption, the province said it would also strictly control the number of small businesses that burned coal directly, and crack down on the illegal production and sale of low-grade coals.
The ban is likely to hurt local suppliers of low-grade coal but is not expected to have a wider market impact.
Late last year, Hebei announced that it would set up 18 "no coal zones" in the rural outskirts of Langfang and Baoding, two of China's most polluted cities, forcing more than 1 million rural residents to switch to natural gas, electricity or biomass.
However, exceptions were made for coal-fired electricity, large-scale heat providers, and industries like steel and chemicals that use coal as a raw material.
Hebei, which lags the rest of the country when it comes to switching to cleaner forms of energy, aims to extend the pilot programme to other parts of the province.
But officials claim they are already struggling to pay for the conversion of millions of coal-fired boilers used for winter heating, and the central government needs to provide more support.
Vice-governor Yang Chongyong said at China's national parliament last month that the province would require at least 300 billion yuan ($43.53 billion) over the 2016-2020 period to allow rural residents to switch to gas.
He called on Beijing to establish a dedicated fund to help the province make the transition, and for major policy banks to provide low-interest preferential loans.
Despite reporting improvements in 2016, Hebei, together with neighbouring Beijing and Tianjin, saw concentrations of small breathable particles known as PM2.5 rise 48 percent in the first two months of 2017 after several bouts of persistent smog.
It promised on Saturday to take more action against pollution, releasing 18 new "special implementation plans" to tackle "backward" coal-fired power plants and promote new energy vehicles. ($1 = 6.8925 yuan) (Reporting by David Stanway; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman)