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Crude Settles Higher as Mideast Tensions Flare

Oil prices rose on Thursday to their highest levels in weeks as tensions between Syria and Turkey escalated, while maintenance on North Sea oilfields pushed the premium for Europe's Brent crude to another one-year high.

Turkey was accused by Moscow of endangering Russian lives after it forced a Syrian passenger plane to land and seized what it suspected was military equipment being ferried from Russia to Syria and the embattled government of President Bashar al-Assad.

Damascus said intercepting the Syrian Air plane was an act of piracy, and the incident follows the previous warning by Turkey's chief of staff that Ankara would use greater force if shells from Syria continued to hit Turkish territory.

"The Syrian situation is heating up and there are fears about Turkey, a NATO member, retaliating and contagion in the region," said Bjarne Schieldrop, analyst at SEB in Oslo.

Brent November crude rose $1.38, or 1.21 percent, to settle at $115.71, just off the day's high.

U.S. November WTI crude rose 82 cents, or 0.9 percent, to settle at $92.07 a barrel, with the closely watched Brent/WTI spread reaching its widest differential in a year at some $23.50 a barrel.

Brent's premium to U.S. crude has risen nearly $8 a barrel in the past three weeks, with the European benchmark squeezed by declining North Sea output. Production from 12 streams is set to fall by about 1 percent in November.

Oil prices are being whipsawed by pressure from concerns about lower global fuel demand amid slowing economic growth, while the risk of supply disruptions in the Middle East and loading delays for crude from the North Sea provide support.

U.S. Oil Inventories

Crude oil stocks rose 1.67 million barrels last week, twice as much as expected, but a steep drop in distillate stocks and a less dramatic slip in gasoline stocks kept concerns about tight fuel supplies in focus.

Distillate stockpiles dropped 3.18 million barrels, much more than the consensus forecast of half a million barrels, while gasoline stocks fell 534,000 barrels.

U.S. heating oil futures churned higher, up more than 1 percent, while RBOB gasoline edged lower.

"Nearby RBOB futures were the weak component of the complex in today’s trade amid a couple of refinery restarts and massive liquidation out of long RBOB, short heating oil spread positions," Jim Ritterbusch, president at Ritterbusch & Associates, said in a note.

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