Oil prices climbed toward $92 a barrel Thursday as the violent street clashes in Egypt drew attention away from bearish U.S. crude and gasoline supply figures.
By early afternoon in Europe, benchmark crude for March delivery was up 92 cents at $91.78 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract settled 9 cents higher at $90.86 on Wednesday.
In London, Brent crude gained 49 cents to $102.83 a barrel on the ICE Futures exchange after trading as high as $103.37 earlier in the session.
U.S. energy supply data gave mixed signals about the strength of consumer demand. The Energy Department's Energy Information Administration said Wednesday that crude supplies rose less than expected last week but that gasoline inventories jumped more than analyst forecasts to the highest level since March 1993.
"Considering the level of demand, the level of stocks, and the spare capacity left in OPEC, the U.S. is in an extremely comfortable supply situation," said Oliver Jakob of Petromatrix in Switzerland.
Meanwhile, supporters and opponents of President Hosni Mubarak fought running battles in Cairo on Wednesday and Thursday, leaving at least three people dead and 600 injured, after the 82-year-old leader resisted protesters' calls for his immediate resignation. Shipping through Egypt's Suez Canal has not been disrupted, but investors are also concerned political instability could spread to oil rich countries in the Middle East.
Oil hovered in the $70s for most of last year but jumped up in the fourth quarter and has traded near $90 so far this year, triggering concerns that higher costs for fuel will spark inflation and undermine global economic growth.
On Thursday, Australia's national carrier Qantas Airways said it will boost international fares by $20 to $50 later this month because of soaring jet fuel prices.
Traders are also mulling a U.S. stock market rally, frigid winter weather, Europe's debt problems and a U.S. January employment report scheduled for Friday.
"We don't remember this many diverse factors competing so fiercely for oil traders' attention," energy consultants Cameron Hanover said in a report.
In other Nymex trading in March contracts, heating oil rose 2.12 cents to $2.8019 a gallon and gasoline gained 1.75 cents to $2.516 a gallon. Natural gas futures were down 0.8 cent at $4.421 per 1,000 cubic feet.