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Crude Ekes Out Gain

Other energy contracts fall.

The energy complex was mostly weaker Monday, but oil futures overcame early selling pressure and closed higher for the eighth time in the last nine trading sessions in New York.

The May contract for light sweet crude oil was up 7 cents at $65.94 a barrel. Reformulated gasoline was 5 cents lower at $2.06 a gallon, and heating oil slipped 2 cents to $1.86 a gallon.

The near-term natural gas contract was down 6 cents at $7.67 per million British thermal units.

Meanwhile, rhetoric between Tehran and the West over 15 British soldiers detained in Iran acquired a hard-line tone over the weekend, according to Cliff Kupchan, director for Europe and Eurasia at The Eurasia Group, a geopolitical think tank.

Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad accused Britain of turning the situation into "an international crisis." President Bush joined the debate by referring to the detainees as "hostages," telling reporters at Camp David that the British captives are "innocent, they were doing nothing, and they were summarily plucked out of the water."

Bush probably wouldn't have used the word "hostage" without the approval of British officials, Kupchan said. "Both Bush and Ahmadinejad put things in fairly harsh terms. This indicates that the two sides may be preparing for a rather lengthy stand-off.

"Iran wants to level the playing field, since the U.S. is flexing its muscles with two aircraft carrier groups in the Persian Gulf," Kupchan continued. "The chance that the detainees will be released in the next few days is low. This situation could easily go on for another several weeks to a month."

Additionally, he said Iran is using the detainee situation as a distraction so that it can speed up its nuclear program. The International Atomic Energy Agency hopes to visit and examine Iran's nuclear facilities in late April.

"The markets will get very nervous if a large expansion of its centrifuge system is discovered at the next inspection," Kupchan said.

Regarding Iran's uranium enrichment program, Ahmadinejad said on Sunday that "the people will hear good news in this respect." He is scheduled to speak at a news conference on Tuesday, and some analysts are predicting that he will discuss the program's progress during his speech.

Concerns about Iran, first over its atomic ambitions and more recently stemming from the capture of the British military personnel, has helped lift oil prices lately as traders fretted about the safety of crude shipments from the Mideast.

Elsewhere, three more foreign workers were taken hostage by rebel groups in Nigeria's southern oil-producing territory. One was an employee of

BP

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who was nabbed on Saturday when rebel soldiers stormed an off-shore oil rig. The other two were Lebanese construction workers.

More than 100 foreigners have been taken hostage for ransom by rebels since the beginning of the year. Most oil companies have hemmed in their operations there, reducing oil exports from the country.

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A coalition of human rights groups is saying that the offices of Nigeria's main election watchdog Transition Monitoring Group were ransacked by Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo's secret police. Alternate candidates are alleging that President Obasanjo is trying to quash opposition ahead of the April 21st election.

Workers at a key French oil hub have ended their 18-day long strike today, which had threatened to shut-in French refineries and cut off the flow of exports to the U.S. Nearly 40 oil tankers became bottlenecked outside the French port during the strike. It will take several days for the tankers to unload their cargo.

Meanwhile, energy stocks were mostly higher. The

CBOE Oil Index

climbed 0.9% to end at 660.45.

Chevron

(CVX) - Get Chevron Corporation Report

advanced 1.2% to $74.83.

Exxon Mobil

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edged 0.9% higher to $76.16.

ConocoPhillips'

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Fujairah refinery in the United Arab Emirates is being delayed due to rising costs. CEO Jim Mulva told reporters at an investor conference that the delay could imperil the company's participation in the project. Shares of ConocoPhillips were down 0.2% at $68.19.

Electricity wholesaler

Teco Energy

(TE)

was upgraded by Credit Suisse to outperform from neutral, and its shares advanced 2.4% to $17.63.

Atmos Energy

(ATO) - Get Atmos Energy Corporation Report

was downgraded by JP Morgan to neutral from overweight, sending the stock down fractionally at $31.30.

Friedman Billings downgraded shares of

Pacific Ethanol

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to market perform from outperform, and the stock fell 5.6% to $16.08.