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UPDATE 2-Brent edges higher toward $109 on strong China trade data

Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen
Wednesday, 12 Feb 2014 | 1:27 AM ET

* China's crude oil imports rise to record high in January

* Chinese exports beat expectations

* API data: Cushing crude stocks down 2.5 million barrels

* Coming up: EIA oil inventory data at 1530 GMT

(Updates prices)

SINGAPORE, Feb 12 (Reuters) - Brent crude edged higher toward $109 a barrel on Wednesday after data showed Chinese oil imports hit a record high last month, raising hopes of continued growth in oil demand in the world's second largest economy.

Crude oil imports in the world's biggest net oil importer rose 11.9 percent in January from a year earlier to a record 28.16 million tonnes, or 6.63 million barrels per day (bpd), customs data showed Wednesday.

Also signalling a reversal of the recent economic slowdown in China, exports beat expectations, rising 10.6 percent in January from a year earlier, while imports jumped 10 percent.

"The strong data underpins strength in oil markets and across the whole commodity board," said Mark Keenan, head of commodities research in Asia at Societe Generale.

"The data is so surprising that there's an element of checking whether it's in fact correct at the moment."

Brent crude for March delivery was 13 cents higher at $108.81 at 0426 GMT, after settling up five cents. U.S. crude was up 57 cents at $100.51 a barrel, after closing 12 cents lower.

The U.S. contract was buoyed by data from the American Petroleum Institute (API) showing crude stocks at the key U.S. delivery hub in Cushing, Oklahoma fell by 2.5 million barrels in the week to Feb. 7.

Expectations of increased demand due to cold weather in the United States, especially for distillates, also offered support. Distillates, including heating oil and diesel, fell by 1.5 million barrels last week, the API data showed.

U.S. crude inventories rose by 2.1 million barrels to 362.9 million, the API data showed, although this was lower than analysts' expectations.

The more closely-watched weekly inventory report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) is due at 1530 GMT.

Strong growth in Chinese crude imports last month came as PetroChina and Sinopec started operations at the 300,000-bpd Sichuan refinery and the 280,000-bpd Fujian refinery.

"Aside from seasonal stockpiling ahead of the Chinese New Year, the January startup of two new refineries in Sichuan and Fujian likely kept imports high," said Sijin Cheng, analyst at Barclays in Singapore.

An imminent startup of a new strategic petroleum reserve site in Huangdao, designed to hold 18.9 million barrels, may have been a factor as well, she added.

LIKE A TON OF BRICKS

Although oil markets had a muted reaction to U.S. Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen's comments on Tuesday that the central bank will stick to a measured tapering of stimulus, the comments would likely support investor sentiment toward risky assets such as oil, Keenan said.

Oil prices also drew support from the EIA revising its world oil demand forecast for this year to 1.26 million barrels per day (bpd) this year, 50,000 bpd higher than a its earlier forecast.

The government agency also cut its 2014 forecast for U.S. crude oil production by 100,000 barrels per day (bpd) to 8.4 million bpd and by 100,000 bpd to 9.2 million bpd for 2015.

"Collectively, the recent news provide a reasonable stable foundation for higher oil prices going forward," said Keenan.

Meanwhile, gains in Brent were capped by expectations of a further increase in Libyan output. The North African nation's current production is around 600,000 barrels per day (bpd), up from its average rate in January.

Progress in talks between world powers and Iran over the country's nuclear programme could also weigh on prices. Tough international sanctions over the past two years have cut Iran's oil exports in half.

Still, President Barack Obama on Tuesday warned of tough action against companies eyeing business with Iran, saying the United States would come down like a "ton of bricks" on those that violated sanctions against Tehran.

(Reporting By Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen; Editing by Michael Perry)