Filomena Scalise

London - Global oil prices slid on Thursday as traders worried over poor economic data, a potential end to US stimulus measures, and signs of weaker-than-expected American crude demand, analysts said.

Brent North Sea crude for delivery in April fell $1.57 to $114.03 a barrel in late afternoon deals in London.

New York's main contract, light sweet crude for April tumbled $2.20 to $93.02 per barrel.

The market accelerated earlier losses after downbeat reports on US jobs and European business activity which compounded concerns about flagging global demand for energy.

The US government's Labour Department said initial jobless claims rose to 362 000 in the week ending February 16, more than the analyst estimate of 358 000.

A Markit report on the eurozone business activity meanwhile showed its purchasing managers index hit a two-month low at 47.3 in February, down from 48.6 the previous month.

Oil was already falling after minutes from the Federal Reserve's most recent meeting showed some members in favour of cutting short the $85-billion-a-month bond-buying spree introduced last year to support the world's biggest economy.

The news, combined with speculation over a massive sell-off by an unnamed investment fund, had sent crude futures plunging by about $2 on Wednesday.

“Investors are continuing to sell crude oil, along with risk assets in general, after the FOMC's last meeting minutes further confirmed fears that the Fed may withdraw or reduce QE sooner than had been expected,” said analyst Fawad Razaqzada at GFT Markets.

“On top of this, economic data has been disappointing today, with those eurozone PMI figures and several US pointers missing expectations.”

The Fed introduced a third round of its asset-purchase scheme, known as quantitative easing 3 (QE3), in September and said it would not take its foot off the pedal until unemployment had fallen and the economy was strong enough.

However, the minutes showed that a “number” of members of the Federal Open Market Committee said an ongoing evaluation of the easing “might well lead the committee to taper or end its purchases before it judged that a substantial improvement in the outlook for the labour market had occurred”.

Meanwhile on Thursday, the US government's Department of Energy (DoE) announced that American crude inventories rose by 4.1 million barrels in the week ending February 15.

That was more than double market expectations for a gain of 1.7 million barrels, according to analysts polled by Dow Jones Newswires, and indicated weaker-than-expected demand in the world's biggest crude consuming nation.

The DoE report was published one day later than normal owing to a public holiday on Monday.

Crude futures were also pulled lower on Wednesday by speculation that major oil producer Saudi Arabia was mulling plans to lift production to meet strong demand from Asian powerhouse China, analysts said.

The market also slid on news that global powers were ready to make key oil producer Iran an offer over their long-running dispute with Tehran.

World powers will make Iran an offer with “significant new elements” in a bid to resolve the dispute over its nuclear programme at talks next week in Kazakhstan, a western diplomat said on Wednesday.

The next round of talks with Iran under the '5+1' format - UN Security Council members Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States, plus Germany - will be held on February 26 in Almaty after a long gap.

Iran insists its programme of uranium enrichment is for purely peaceful purposes, but Western nations contend that Tehran wants to manufacture nuclear weapons. - Sapa-AFP