Oil up, stocks down on Middle East concerns

The crisis in Libya sent most Asian shares down and oil to fresh highs on Thursday amid fears of a bloodbath as the government of the north African country tries to crack down on an insurrection.

As thousands of Libyans and foreigners fled Libya and opponents of leader Moamer Kadhafi seemed to be in control of vast swathes of the nation as he struggled to cling on to his four-decade rule.

US President Barack Obama condemned the leadership’s crackdown on protesters and orders to shoot protesters as “outrageous” while reports said up to 1,000 people have died in a backlash by Kadhafi’s forces.

With oil exports being curtailed from the crude exporter, the price of the black gold jumped to highs not seen since late 2008.

Brent North Sea crude — which is more sensitive to Middle East unrest thanks to Europe’s greater dependence on oil from the region — gained 85 cents to $112.10 per barrel. New York’s main contract, light sweet crude, gained $1.00 cents to $99.10.

And with foreign oil workers fleeing Libya and rumors swirling that Kadhafi may sabotage pipelines, analysts raised the prospect of a fresh oil crisis.

Fears of the unrest spreading throughout the region was pushing crude prices up, said Victor Shum, senior principal of Purvin and Gertz energy consultants in Singapore.

“The concerns go beyond Libya, which is a relatively small oil producer, to the bigger oil producers that may be affected if the revolt spread,” he told AFP.

Morocco, Bahrain, Yemen and Iran are already witnessing uprisings, which follow the fall of leaders in Egypt and Tunisia.

Share traders were bearish, with airline stocks hurt by expectations that the cost of fuel will go higher.

Tokyo fell 0.86 percent, Sydney shed 0.55 percent and Hong Kong opened 0.22 percent lower while Singapore edged 0.25 percent.

However, Seoul gained 0.11 percent after three days of losses and Shanghai added 0.15 percent.

On currency markets the euro was up against the dollar as growing concerns about inflation in the eurozone stoke expectations the European Central Bank will soon hike interest rates.

The single currency was at $1.3771 in early Asian trade, up from $1.3746 late in New York and much higher than the $1.3690 in Asia Wednesday, although it eased to 113.29 yen from 113.37 yen.

The dollar was at 82.20 yen, down from 82.46 in late New York trade.

Gold opened at $1,414.00-$1,415.00 an ounce, up from Wednesday’s close of $1,400.00-$1,401.00, as investors buy into the safe haven precious metal to hedge against the global uncertainty.