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Oil prices steady around US$62 a barrel, supported by fall in US gasoline stocks

Oil prices were steady in Asian trading Thursday, after the U.S. government reported a larger-than-expected decline in domestic gasoline stockpiles.

Total U.S. motor gasoline stockpiles sank by 5.5 million barrels last week to 199.7 million barrels, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported Wednesday. Analysts had been expecting just a 1.3 million barrel decline, according to a survey by Dow Jones Newswires.

"That has really boosted gasoline prices and also created a knock-on effect on crude prices," said Victor Shum, energy analyst with Purvin & Gertz in Singapore.

Light, sweet crude for May delivery retreated 3 cents to US$61.98 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange midday in Singapore.

The contract rose 12 cents to US$62.01 a barrel after hitting an intraday high of US$62.56 a barrel Wednesday.

"So the fundamentals really provided support of the prices and prevented prices from sliding too far as a result of the release of the British sailors out of Iran last week," Shum said. "Prior to the seizure of the British sailors, crude oil futures were in the US$61 to US$62 range and today we remain in that range."

Oil prices have been volatile the last couple of weeks, gaining nearly US$5 a barrel after Iran detained 15 British sailors and marines, dropping on their release last Thursday, and then sliding almost US$3 on Monday on expectations of oversupply at a key North American delivery point.

Continued worries over Iran's nuclear program and upcoming elections remain on the back of traders' minds, Shum said.

In other Nymex trading, heating oil futures lost 0.42 cent to US$1.8705 a gallon (3.8 liters) while natural gas prices fell 5.5 cents to US$7.800 per 1,000 cubic feet.