By PAMELA SAMPSONBANGKOK (AP) â¿¿ The price of oil fell Friday as weak growth in China's manufacturing failed to impress and more people filed for unemployment benefits in the U.S. Benchmark oil for March delivery was down 16 cents to $97.33 per barrel at late afternoon Bangkok time in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract fell 45 cents to close at $97.49 a barrel on the Nymex on Thursday. Two surveys released Friday showed China's manufacturing activity expanded in January, but growth was weak. The China Federation of Logistics and Purchasing said its purchasing managers' index stood at 50.4. That represented a slowdown in growth from the prior month's reading of 50.6. Separately, HSBC Corp. said its PMI stood at 52.3 on a similar 100-point scale, up from December's 51.5. Numbers above 50 indicate expansion. The U.S. government said Thursday that unemployment claims rose sharply last week. High unemployment drags on the U.S. economy, leading to lower demand for crude and falling energy prices. Traders will get a further indication about the strength of the jobs market Friday, when the Labor Department issues the monthly nonfarm payrolls report. The report is expected to show steady jobs growth. "If non-farm payrolls increased in January by more than December's 155,000 gain, it seems likely that oil prices will strengthen in response," said Caroline Bain, commodities analyst for The Economist Intelligence Unit. However, she said that significant or permanent price hikes are not expected because the market is well supplied and U.S. stockpiles are high. Brent crude, used to price international varieties of oil, fell 10 cents to $115.45 a barrel on the ICE Futures exchange in London. In other energy futures trading on Nymex: â¿¿ Wholesale gasoline lost 1.7 cents to $3.015 per gallon. â¿¿ Natural gas fell 4.4 cents to $3.301 per 1,000 cubic feet. â¿¿ Heating oil fell 0.8 cent to $3.112 a gallon.