Oil hovers above $96 ahead of key US jobs report

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By ALEX KENNEDY, Associated Press

SINGAPORE (AP) — Oil prices hovered above $96 a barrel Friday in Asia as traders awaited a key jobs report for evidence about the strength of the U.S. economy.

Benchmark crude for March delivery was up 13 cents at $96.49 a barrel at late afternoon Singapore time in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract fell $1.25 to settle at $96.36 on Thursday.

Brent crude was up 31 cents at $112.38 a barrel on the ICE Futures Exchange in London.

The Labor Department is scheduled to release January employment figures later Friday, data analysts consider one of the most important measures of economic health. The U.S. created 200,000 jobs in December with an unemployment rate of 8.5 percent, and economists expect about 140,000 jobs were added last month.

The four-week average of unemployment claims fell to 375,750, the lowest since June 2008 and enough to suggest a steadily improving job market, the department said Thursday.

Oil has slid from above $100 last week amid investor concern that rising U.S. crude inventories reflect waning demand.

"While demand has been dismal in Europe as the sovereign debt crisis worsened, demand for oil in the U.S. has also surprised to the downside," Bank of America Merrill Lynch said in a report. "Despite the apparently better economic data, U.S. oil consumption has been particularly hit by mild winter weather."

Capital Economics said it expects Brent to fall to $100 by the end of this quarter and to $75 by the end of next year.

In other energy trading, heating oil was up 0.2 cents at $3.05 per gallon and gasoline futures gained 0.9 cents to $2.88 per gallon. Natural gas fell 3 cents to $2.52 per 1,000 cubic feet.

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