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Oil prices rise 1.5 percent as strong U.S. economic data eases demand concerns

An oil pump jack of Canadian group Vermilion Energy is pictured in Parentis-en-Born, France, October 13, 2017. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau/Files

By Laila Kearney

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Oil prices gained 1.5 percent on Friday as strong U.S. employment data tempered fears about weakening global crude oil demand, and on expectations that an escalating conflict in Libya could tighten oil supplies.

Optimism that Washington and Beijing are approaching a trade deal also boosted crude prices.

Brent crude futures settled at $70.34 a barrel, up 94 cents, or 1.35 percent. The session high of $70.46 was the strongest since Nov. 12.

U.S. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude settled at $63.08 a barrel, up 98 cents, or 1.58 percent. Earlier in the session, WTI hit $63.24, the highest since Nov. 6.

Brent recorded its second straight week of gains, while WTI saw its fifth consecutive weekly rise.

The U.S. Labour Department report showed employment growth accelerated from a 17-month low in March.

"This data is going to be enough to keep us above the $60 level for a least a couple of weeks," said Josh Graves, senior commodities strategist at RJO Futures in Chicago.

Military action in Libya, which could disrupt supply from the OPEC member, also aided prices.

On Thursday, Eastern Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar ordered his troops to march on Tripoli, escalating a conflict with the internationally recognised government.

"The developing situation in Libya is also supportive, but, for now the oil is continuing to flow and will likely continue to do so," said John Kilduff, a partner at Again Capital LLC in New York.

Crude futures also received a boost from news of a potential slowdown in crude production out of Venezuela, as U.S. sanctions and energy blackouts hit the OPEC nation's oil industry.

Venezuelan state-owned oil company PDVSA expects its crude upgraders to operate well below capacity this month, according to industry sources and documents seen by Reuters.

Venezuela depends on the upgraders to convert the extra-heavy crude oil produced in the Orinoco Belt into exportable grades usable in overseas refineries.

U.S. energy companies this week increased the number of oil drilling rigs for first time in seven weeks, General Electric Co's Baker Hughes energy services firm said in its report on Friday. Companies added 15 oil rigs in the week to April 5.

While crude production has soared in the United States to a record 12.2 million barrels per day, according to government data released on Tuesday, some signs point to a near-term easing of growth.

Growing optimism over U.S.-China trade relations also supported prices.

U.S. and Chinese trade negotiators will continue talks next week by video conference as they try to reach a deal to resolve the trade war, White House adviser Larry Kudlow said on Friday.


(Additional reporting by Ahmad Ghaddar in London, Aaron Sheldrick in TOKYO and Henning Gloystein in SINGAPORE; Editing by Marguerita Choy, David Gregorio and Diane Craft)