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Oil prices fell below USD96 a barrel

Oil prices fell below US$96 a barrel Thursday as a report showing a smaller-than-expected drop in U.S. crude supplies prompted traders to pocket gains from the recent rally.

Oil prices had surged to a record above US$98 a barrel in the previous session amid concerns about supplies, the weak U.S. dollar and OPEC's apparent reluctance to pump more crude into the market.

The U.S. Energy Department's petroleum supply report Wednesday confirmed a view that oil supplies are falling, but offered no real surprises.

"The market was expecting a slightly larger drop in crude supply last week," said Mark Pervan, a commodity strategist at Australia & New Zealand Bank in Melbourne.

The U.S. Energy Department's statistical arm reported that oil inventories fell 800,000 barrels during the week ended Nov. 2, half the decline expected by analysts surveyed by Dow Jones Newswires.

Light, sweet crude for December delivery lost 43 cents to US$95.94 a barrel in Asian electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange by midafternoon in Singapore.

The contract's climb toward the US$100 mark stalled when it fell 33 cents Wednesday to settle at US$96.37 a barrel after a volatile session that saw futures down nearly US$2 a barrel at times. Prices rose as high as US$98.62 Wednesday, a record.

Some analysts think oil prices have far outpaced levels justified by the underlying principles of supply and demand. They blame market speculators for pushing crude prices to record levels, and predict that a correction, or sharp decline, is imminent.

However, "U.S. crude supplies are very critical at the moment. There's a lot of concern that there's not enough supply going into the U.S. winter heating season," Pervan said.

Crude futures are likely to resume their ascent toward US$100 as upward momentum was still strong, he said. A critical factor in the direction of the oil prices has been the U.S. dollar's performance, he noted.

"The general trend seems to be for further weakness in the dollar and that's certainly going to push the case for US$100-oil pretty quickly," he said.

The U.S. dollar has been hitting multiple-decade lows against other major currencies, and Wednesday in Europe dropped to another record low against the 13-nation euro.

The Energy Information Administration's report also said refinery utilization remained flat at 86.2 percent of capacity. Analysts had expected an increase of 0.8 percentage point.

Gasoline inventories fell 800,000 barrels last week, countering analyst expectations for an increase of 200,000 barrels. Inventories of distillates, which include heating oil and diesel fuel, rose 100,000 barrels last week. Analysts expected a decline of 500,000 barrels.

Heating oil futures dropped 0.75 cent to US$2.61 a gallon (3.8 liters) while gasoline prices declined 0.56 cent to US$2.435 a gallon.

Natural gas futures added 6.9 cents to US$7.693 per 1,000 cubic feet.

In London, December Brent crude dropped 29 cents to US$92.95 a barrel on the ICE futures exchange.

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