Oil prices down in Asian trade

Oil prices fell in Asia Thursday but losses were curtailed as dealers focused on positive elements of a mixed US energy stockpiles report, analysts said.

West Texas Intermediate for April eased 43 cents to $50.56 while Brent crude for April tumbled 31 cents to $61.32 in afternoon trade.

The US government's Department of Energy (DoE) said Wednesday that crude inventories rose 8.4 million barrels in the week ending February 20 to a record 434.1 million barrels, more than double the increase expected.

However, the DoE also reported that stockpiles of distillates, which include diesel and heating fuel, slid 2.7 million barrels, while gasoline reserves sank by 3.1 million.

Traders are choosing "to focus on the sharp declines in gasoline and distillates stockpiles which may indicate strengthening demand in US, the world's largest crude consumer," Singapore's United Overseas Bank said in a commentary.

Analysts said oil prices were also supported following upbeat comments by Ali Al-Naimi, the oil minister of major oil producer Saudi Arabia.

Oil demand is growing and the market has turned "calm", Al-Naimi told reporters after a speech at a conference in the kingdom on Wednesday, Bloomberg News reported.

Saudi Arabia is the biggest and most influential member of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), which in November decided to maintain output levels despite a global oversupply.

The move sent prices tumbling to six-year lows of just over $40 at the end of January, before recovering slightly following a drop in US oil rig utilisation and reduced future investments by oil majors.

Elsewhere, oil investors are also keeping a close watch on Greece's debt crisis as well as rising violence in oil producer Libya.

"With temporary resolution of the Greek crisis and significant drop in production from Libya due to escalation of tensions, risk of sharp fall in prices during the next two weeks is limited," said Sanjeev Gupta, head of the Asia-Pacific Oil & Gas practice at professional services organisation EY.

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