Stocks fluctuated in the final hour of the session, adding back losses even as oil prices continued to fall amid rumors involving Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell more than 20 points, after falling more than 100 points earlier in the session, but also after retreating to a 4-point drop earlier in the final hour. The blue-chip index sank 107 points amid spreading unrest in the Middle Easton Wednesday.
Hewlett-Packard and Travelers led Dow decliners, while Boeing and General Electric led gainers.
The S&P 500 traded flat and the tech-heavy Nasdaq advanced. The CBOE Volatility Index, widely considered the best gauge of fear in the market, sank more than 5 percent, below 21, after posting strong gains over the previous two sessions.
Among key S&P 500 sectors, energy, materials and telecom fell, while industrials and technology rose.
Stock bounced off the lows of the day as the price of U.S. light crude fell, closing at $97.28 a barrelamid unconfirmed rumorsthat Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was shot. However, U.S. officials said they have no reason to believe Gaddafi is dead. Earlier, oil prices had traded near $100 a barrel; London Brent crude gave up gains and closed slightly higher at $111.36 a barrel. Prices also eased after news Saudia Arabia was in talks with Europeanrefiners to cover any shortfall caused by the Libyan turmoil.
The energy sector led market declines much of the session, largely weighed down by the refiners. Halliburton , Schlumberger and Transocean were among the top laggards.
Gold, meanwhile, settled above $1,415 an ounce, but then traded lower. The dollar fell slightly against a basket of currencies.
Despite a spate of economic news, including a surprising drop in jobless claims, traders are focusing on Libya, said Todd Schoenberger, managing director at LandColt Trading.
"People are worried, just because of that uncertainty factor," Schoenberger said. "Things seem to be escalating. Where does this end? There are deep concerns there."