MUMBAI, March 5 (Reuters) - India's palm oil imports in February plunged to their lowest levels in nine months, as higher prices prompted buyers to reduce purchases of the tropical oil and increase buying of sunflower oil, five dealers told Reuters on Tuesday.

Lower purchases by India, the world's biggest importer of vegetable oils, could weigh on benchmark Malaysian palm oil futures, but will help to reduce sunflower oil inventories in the Black Sea region.

February palm oil imports fell 35.6% month-on-month to 504,000 metric tons, the lowest since May 2023, according to estimates from dealers.

"Palm oil imports have declined significantly due to persistently negative margins and competitive pricing of soybean and sunflower oil," said Rajesh Patel, managing partner at edible oil trader and broker GGN Research.

Palm oil usually trades at a discount to rival soyoil and sunflower oil, but falling stocks have lifted its prices above rival oils, whose supplies are abundant.

Crude palm oil (CPO) imports are being offered at about $965 a metric ton, including cost, insurance and freight (CIF), in India for April delivery, while soyoil and sunflower oil are offered around $950 and $928 a ton, respectively, dealers said.

Sunflower oil imports surged 34% last month to 295,000 tons on lower prices, and as shipments originally expected in January arrived in February due to delays caused by Houthi attacks on Red Sea shipping lanes, they said.

Soyoil imports in February fell 7.9% to 174,000 tons from a month earlier, and were far below the monthly average imports of 306,000 tons seen in the last marketing year ended Oct. 31, dealers estimated.

Industry body Solvent Extractors' Association of India (SEA) is likely to publish its data on February imports by mid-March.

The lower palm oil and soyoil imports pulled down India's total edible oil imports in February to the lowest level in nearly two years at 973,000 tons, down 18.4% from a month earlier, dealers said.

India buys palm oil mainly from Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, while it imports soyoil and sunflower oil from Argentina, Brazil, Russia and Ukraine.

(Reporting by Rajendra Jadhav; Editing by Sherry Jacob-Phillips)