* France joins Britain and the U.S. in oil reserves release
* Iran to reopen talks with world powers on April 13
* Small rise seen in U.S. jobless claims, last week at
* U.S. crude stocks surge 7.1 million barrels last week -EIA
(Updated throughout, previous SINGAPORE)
By Jessica Donati
LONDON, March 29 Oil prices held near $124 a
barrel on Thursday on concerns about the loss of Iranian oil
despite the prospect of a release of strategic oil reserves in
the West and renewed promises of additional supply from Saudi
France's Prime Minister Francois Fillon said on Thursday
there was a good chance of an accord between the U.S. and Europe
on a release of strategic oil reserves.
Ahead of elections in both France and the U.S., pressure is
mounting to tackle high fuel prices.
"The talk of a possible strategic oil reserve release by the
U.S. and EU is another big effort to talk prices down, but
that's not really happening," said David Morrison, a market
analyst at financial services company GFT, adding the downward
effect of last year's emergency release had only been temporary.
Brent crude was down 19 cents at $123.97 a barrel at
0953 GMT, after falling 1.09 percent the previous session. U.S.
crude was down 42 cents at $104.99 a barrel, after a drop
of 1.79 percent on Wednesday.
Saudi Arabia's oil minister Ali al-Naimi attacked high oil
prices in a rare opinion piece published in the Financial Times
Oil prices also held up against signs of a slowdown in
China, with the Shanghai exchange closing at a two and a half
month low as corporate results disappointed.
"There seems to be more pressure on the upside despite
concerns about global growth... The big thing underpinning oil
is central banks' willingness to continue printing money,"
Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke spurred expectations in comments
at the start of the week the bank could yet launch a third round
of quantitative easing if the U.S. economy needed a boost.
A below-forecast increase in new orders for U.S. durable
goods dented optimism about growth in the world's largest oil
U.S. jobless claims data due at 1230 GMT on Thursday was
expected to show a small increase in claims after the number
dropped to a four-year low last week.
Front-month Brent crude is on track to post a second
straight quarterly rise of more than 15 percent by the end of
Rising tension between Iran and the West over Tehran's
nuclear program, accidents in the North Sea and reported attacks
on oil-producing areas in South Sudan have all contributed to
the upward trend.
A recovery in the U.S. economy has also helped lift
front-month West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude by more than 6
percent in the first quarter.
"The U.S. economy is still improving and there's a potential
saviour in a QE3 package if it weakens," said Ben Le Brun, a
Sydney-based market analyst at brokerage OptionsXpress.
"This, coupled with any significant downside news coming out
of Iran, will underpin the strength in oil prices."
Iran expects to reopen talks with world powers on April 13
in a bid to defuse increasing tension, Iranian Foreign Minister
Ali Akbar Salehi said.
Deutsche Bank estimated that supply of about 2 million
barrels per day (bpd) has been disrupted, with up to half of the
missing supply attributable to lost Iranian exports.
A surprise build in U.S. crude oil inventories on Wednesday
did little to ease supply concerns, as the increase was partly
attributed to weather conditions.
Instead, analysts took an unexpected drop in gasoline
inventories to be a sign the export market was strong and could
ultimately support demand for oil.
"The largest weekly build in crude stocks since July 2010
was unexpected, but the price response has been somewhat limited
as closer examination of the data reveals that much of the
increase is attributable to arrival of imports that had been
delayed by weather conditions," said Harry Tchilinguirian and
Gareth Lewis-Davies of BNP Paribas in a note.
(Editing by James Jukwey)