Oil prices rise ahead of ECB announcement

Oil prices advanced on Thursday, with Brent reaching fresh five-month high levels before a European Central Bank monetary policy announcement and the release of trade data from China.

Brent North Sea crude for March delivery reached $117.72 a barrel -- the highest level since September 14. In later London midday deals, the contract stood at $117.63, a rise of 90 cents compared with Wednesday's close.

New York's main contract, light sweet crude for March gained 33 cents to $96.95 per barrel.

"Markets are looking forward to the European Central Bank meeting and the release of Chinese trade data...for some directional indications," said Ernst & Young analyst Sanjeev Gupta.

ECB policymakers are expected to decide on keeping interest rates unchanged during their meeting later Thursday despite worries about slow growth and the strengthening euro.

Investors are choosing "to stay on the sidelines ahead of a key European Central Bank policy meeting...where the spotlight will be on whether the recent strength in euro is sustainable for the weaker economies in the eurozone", Phillip Futures said in a market commentary.

A stronger euro is supportive of oil prices because it makes the dollar-priced commodity cheaper. A weaker euro makes oil more expensive for holders of the currency and is likely to dent demand.

Other analysts said investors will also be on the lookout for trade and inflation data from China due to be released Friday.

The closely-watched figures are the latest in a string of data expected to point to a recovery in the world's second biggest economy.

China is the world's biggest energy consumer and a strong economy bodes well for demand and prices.

burs-bcp/rfj/hd

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