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Oil prices stay below $98 ahead of US jobs data

BANGKOK (AP) — Oil prices hovered below $98 a barrel Thursday as traders waited for more economic indicators from the U.S.

Benchmark oil for March delivery was down 30 cents to $97.63 at late afternoon Bangkok time in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract rose 37 cents to finish at $97.94 per barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange on Wednesday.

The U.S. economy unexpectedly contracted in the fourth quarter, which turned stock markets lower after a January rally that pushed the Dow Jones industrial average to near-record highs.

Meanwhile, increasing imports pushed U.S. crude oil supplies up by 5.9 million barrels last week, more than twice what analysts expected, the government said Wednesday.

Ample supplies have been a major factor in keeping oil prices from spiking, although prices have risen $6 per barrel since the start of the year. Still, oil hasn't seen the $100-per-barrel level since early May.

Weekly jobless claims will be released later in the day in Washington. Traders were also awaiting the release Friday of employment data and manufacturing for January, hoping to see signs of an improving U.S. economy.

Brent crude, used to price international varieties of oil, fell 10 cents to $114.80 a barrel on the ICE Futures exchange in London.

In other energy futures trading on Nymex:

— Wholesale gasoline fell 0.6 cent to $3.028 per gallon.

— Natural gas fell 3.1 cents to $3.304 per 1,000 cubic feet.

— Heating oil was up 0.2 cent at $3.107 a gallon.

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