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Oil Back Above $96; Gasoline Steady At $3.63

By The Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) â¿¿ The price of oil rose above $96 a barrel Thursday on signs of steady hiring and resilient consumer spending in the U.S. and a rally in the stock market.

Benchmark oil for July delivery gained 81 cents to close at $96.69 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

Meanwhile the average price at the gas pump held steady at $3.63 a gallon, about where it's been for the past week. Prices in southern states such as Florida have been rising, but the Great Lakes states are getting some relief after seeing sharp increases because of a shortage of supplies

A pair of economic reports in the U.S. boosted oil.

The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits fell to 334,000 last week, below what economists had expected, the government said. Another report showed that U.S. retail sales increased 0.6 percent in May from April. That's the fastest pace since February.

Elsewhere the economic news didn't bode as well for energy demand.

The World Bank now expects the economy of the eurozone, the 17 countries sharing the euro currency, to contract by 0.6 percent this year. Its previous forecast was for a 0.1 percent contraction.

Rising U.S. stock markets were also a catalyst for oil. The Dow Jones industrial average and the Standard & Poor's 500 index each rose more than 1 percent after three straight days of losses.

Brent crude, a benchmark for many international oil varieties, gained 76 cents to end at $104.25 a barrel on the ICE Futures exchange in London.

In other energy futures trading on the Nymex:

â¿¿ Wholesale gasoline added 5 cents to finish at $2.86 a gallon.

â¿¿ Heating oil gained 4 cents to end at $2.94 per gallon.

â¿¿ Natural gas rose 4 cents to finish at $3.81 per 1,000 cubic feet.

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