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Japan quake, tsunami drive down oil prices

SINGAPORE - Oil prices fell to near $101 a barrel Friday in Asia after a massive earthquake and tsunami struck Japan, triggering knee-jerk flight to safety selling in regional markets.

Hawaii, U.S. west coast, under tsunami warning

Benchmark crude for April delivery was down $1.30 at $101.40 a barrel at late afternoon Singapore time in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract lost $1.68 to $102.70 on Thursday.

In London, Brent crude was down $1.20 at $114.23 a barrel on the ICE futures exchange.

A magnitude 8.9 earthquake slammed Japan's northeastern coast Friday afternoon, unleashing a 13-foot (4-meter) tsunami that has killed at least five person.

Japan's benchmark Nikkei 225 stock index fell 1.7 percent Friday while Hong Kong's Hang Seng index dropped 1.6 percent. The dollar rose to above 83.20 yen before falling to 82.67 from 82.90 late Thursday.

"The earthquake has had a rather fast and furious impact on financial markets, especially Asian equities and the yen, which would have some impact on crude oil pricing," said Victor Shum, an analyst with energy consultancy Purvin & Gertz in Singapore.

Traders are also eyeing protests in Saudi Arabia for signs they could escalate and potentially hamper production in the world's largest crude exporter.

On Thursday, Saudi police attacked a protest by minority Shiites in the eastern city of Qatif. Shiites, who account for about 10 percent of the kingdom's 23 million population, have protested for two days demanding the release of political prisoners.

Pro-democracy activists have called for protests on Friday in the capital, Riyadh, to demand reforms to the monarchy. Public demonstrations are banned in Saudi Arabia.

Investors are sensitive to any sign of upheaval in Saudi Arabia because the OPEC leader has been using its spare capacity to make up for output lost amid the violent uprising against Libya's government. When news broke that Saudi Arabian police fired shots to break up the protest Thursday, prices soared $3 in just 12 minutes.

"Our biggest fear has been that the unrest infecting the Middle East would surface as violence or bloodshed in Saudi Arabia," Cameron Hanover said in a report. "If protests start to create martyrs in Saudi Arabia, then it could be the beginning of the end."

In other Nymex trading for April contracts, heating oil was down 1 cent at $3.04 a gallon and gasoline dropped 1.5 cents to $3.00 a gallon. Natural gas fell 0.5 cent at $3.83 per 1,000 cubic feet.

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