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Written by: Staff
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SINGAPORE, Mar 27 (Reuters) Oil prices hovered near a seven-week high on Monday, pausing after renewed concerns over Nigerian production had helped drive prices above $64 a barrel and out of a narrow month-long trading range.

U.S. light crude for May delivery was up 2 cents at $64.28 a barrel in the first minutes of ACCESS electronic trade, still near Friday's $64.75 peak, the highest since Feb. 7.

Prices gained 35 cents on Friday as dealers fretted over the potential for a longer-lasting outage in Nigeria, where Italy's Eni joined other producers in shutting in output and declaring force majeure as a result of militant attacks.

A pipeline blast has shut in 75,000 bpd of Eni's 200,000 bpd Brass River exports, but on Thursday the company said that it could be repaired within a week, if all went well.

At the weekend Nigerian militants said they had killed three soldiers in a remote area close to a major natural gas plant and threatened to carry out more attacks amid the months-long campaign of violence against the OPEC member's oil industry.

Oil prices rose about $1.50 or 2.4 percent in volatile trading last week, boosted by the expiry of the April contract and a surprise mid-week draw in U.S. crude inventories.

That rally helped it break out of the $60-$64 band that has trapped prices since mid-February, and could spur additional technical buying, dealers said.

OPEC meanwhile continued to pump near full throttle, although some members were growing anxious about swelling inventories in the United States, which eased last week but still remain near their highest in seven years ahead of the weak spring season.

''I have concerns about stocks building, the second and third quarter, and demand and supply, but we should wait and see,'' Qatar's energy minister Abdullah al-Attiyah told Reuters.

In China, the government raised retail fuel prices by 3-5 percent at the weekend, the first increase in eight months but too modest to derail a recovery in oil demand growth from the world's second-largest consumer, analysts said. [nSP153] Speculators have scaled back their bets that oil prices will fall, according to regulatory data on Friday that showed non-commercial crude oil traders had trimmed net short positions to 6,337 lots in the week ended March 21 from 15,258.[nN24581519] But other players also appeared to be closing out long positions with open interest in the market falling 51,729 lots to 928,551 lots, the CFTC data showed.

REUTERS PDS VP0655

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