Oil prices firm on Middle East unrest

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World oil prices crept higher on Thursday as as traders eyed further unrest in the Middle East and North Africa and kept an eye on Portugal's debt crisis.

Brent North Sea crude for delivery in May inched up six cents to $115.61 a barrel in late afternoon London deals.

New York's main contract, light sweet crude for May, known as West Texas Intermediate, rose 12 cents to $105.87.

Oil rose for a third straight day on Wednesday amid more signs of rising demand and continued turmoil in crude exporters Libya and Yemen, pushing the WTI contract to $105.75, its highest close in two years.

"Crude oil prices extended gains ... following ongoing geopolitical tensions in Libya, Yemen and Syria that raised concerns about escalating political unrest across Middle East and potential serious oil supplies disruptions," said Sucden analyst Myrto Sokou on Thursday.

"It seems that the oil markets have already priced in the devastating earthquake and tsunami disaster in Japan while the renewed tensions in Libya, Yemen and Syria continue to dominate the markets, causing further volatility and nervous trading."

Prior to the start of the unrest, Libya was producing 1.69 million barrels of oil a day, according to the International Energy Agency, but has now almost ground to a halt.

Meanwhile, inventory data released on Wednesday suggested that US consumption growth is steady despite rising prices.

US crude oil inventories rose by 2.1 million barrels last week but gasoline (petrol) stockpiles dived by 5.3 million barrels.

The market is closely following the level of gasoline reserves ahead of the summer driving season in the United States starting in May, when many Americans hit the roads on holiday, pushing up fuel demand.

Elsewhere, anti-government demonstrations continue to be held in Yemen, Bahrain and Syria and there are fears that the unrest could spread to oil-producing kingpin Saudi Arabia.

In Europe, all eyes were on Thursday's EU summit, set to be dominated by rising expectations that indebted Portugal could soon be forced to request a multi-billion-euro bailout.

© 2011 AFP

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