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Oil steady in Asia below $97 a barrel after clawing back losses from earlier in week

The price of oil was little changed Wednesday, underpinned by gradual improvement in the U.S and European economies.

Benchmark crude for March delivery was up 5 cents to $96.69 a barrel at midday Bangkok time in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract rose 47 cents to finish at $96.64 a barrel on Tuesday after a big fall the day before.

Data Tuesday that showed rising activity in the manufacturing and services sectors in the 17 euro countries supported oil prices. A U.S. report also showed the services sector continues to expand.

Sentiment was further helped by a robust gain in Japan's stock market driven by the yen's continued slide on expectations of more aggressive monetary easing.

In other energy futures trading on Nymex:

— Wholesale gasoline rose 0.4 cent to $3.041 a gallon.

— Natural gas added 0.2 cent to $3.401 per 1,000 cubic feet.

— Heating oil was up 0.5 cent at $3.196 a gallon.