US oil ends near $98; Brent dragged under by China

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Brent crude futures fell on Thursday as weaker-than-expected Chinese economic data offset worries about supply disruptions prompted by the stand-off between Russia and Western powers over Ukraine.

U.S. crude oil futures settled slightly higher, as positive retail sales and labor market data raised optimism and outweighed concerns about China. U.S. retail sales rebounded in February and new applications for unemployment benefits hit a three-month low last week, suggesting some strength in the economy after harsh weather abruptly slowed activity.

Data from China showed growth in investment, retail sales and factory output all fell to multi-year lows in the world's second largest consumer of oil, amplifying investors' worries about a slowdown.

The Ukraine conflict looked poised for another escalation as Germany's Angela Merkel warned Moscow it risked "massive" political and economic damage if it didn't change course. Russia responded by restarting military exercises near the border with Ukraine. The conflict has provided global oil markets support in recent weeks because traders worry it could lead to a disruption of oil supplies from Russia, one of the world's largest oil producers.

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U.S. crude settled up 21 cents at $98.20. Brent crude was down 70 cents near $107.

Thursday's slight rise in U.S crude came after the American benchmark plunged more than 2 percent on Wednesday, its lowest level since January, after the government surprised markets with a test release from its strategic petroleum reserves, and weekly inventory data showed a larger-than-expected rise in crude stockpiles.

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