SEOUL May 9 U.S. crude held above $96.50 a barrel on Thursday, underpinned by the spread against Brent which narrowed sharply in the prior session amid hopes for increased capacity to funnel rising U.S. crude oil production out of benchmark-supply-point Cushing.
* U.S. crude oil was up 7 cents a barrel at $96.69 by 0122 GMT, after settling up $1 at $96.62 on Wednesday.
* Brent crude was up 21 cents a barrel at $104.55. It settled 6 cents a lower at $104.34 in the previous session.
* The spread between U.S. crude and Brent CL-LCO1=R was quoted at $7.86, widening a tad after it previously settled at $7.72, the lowest settlement since late January 2011.
* The perception and expectation that further capacity could bring a flood of crude out of Cushing and into U.S. refineries drove U.S. prices higher in the previous session, tightening the differential between the U.S. benchmark and Brent.
* The oil markets were also supported by upbeat economic data. Daily crude oil imports by China, the world's largest crude buyer after the United States, rose 3.7 percent in April from year ago and gained 3.5 percent from a month earlier, customs data showed on Wednesday, as refiners took advantage of a fall in global prices to replenish stocks.
* The rally in U.S. crude oil prices, however, was capped by a record 395.5 million barrels of U.S. crude oil stocks in the week to May 3 as local production continued to rise, data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration said.
* To end Syria's civil war in the oil-producing Middle East region, Russia and the United States agreed to seek new peace talks with both sides, but opposition leaders were sceptical on Wednesday of an initiative they fear might let President Bashar al-Assad hang on to power.
* U.S. President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron will meet at the White House on Monday to discuss Syria, the global economy, trade and the upcoming meeting in Northern Ireland of the Group of Eight major world economies.
* Encouraging global data and Wall Street's extended record run underpinned Asian shares on Thursday, with Japanese stocks leading the way to within striking distance of fresh five-year highs.
* The euro held near a one-week high against the dollar and two-month peaks on its Australian counterpart in early Asian trade, having risen broadly after upbeat German factory activity data bolstered sentiment.
* The following data is expected on Thursday (GMT):
0130 China CPI yy Apr CNCPI=ECI
0130 China PPI yy Apr CNPPI=ECI
1100 Britain BOE bank rate May GBBOEI=ECI
1230 U.S. Jobless claims Weekly ECONUS
1430 U.S. EIA natural gas stocks Weekly USOILN=ECI
2350 Japan Bank lending yy Apr JPBNK=ECI (Reporting by Meeyoung Cho; Editing by Ed Davies)