NEW YORK Oil prices jumped on Friday, as supportive U.S. jobs data reinforced economic growth expectations and Libya's conflict and Middle East unrest kept supply threats in focus, pushing both Brent and U.S. crude to their highest settlements since 2008.
U.S. nonfarm payrolls registered solid growth for a second month in March and the jobless rate hit a two-year low of 8.8 percent, helping fuel optimism about oil demand.
Geopolitical supply risks also had oil traders wary of being too short at the weekend, as Libya's undecided conflict and Middle East unrest persist and elections near for OPEC-member Nigeria, brokers and analysts said.
Oil prices also benefited from momentum after ending the first quarter posting double-digit quarterly gains.
Brent crude for May rose $1.34 to settle at $118.70 a barrel, the highest close since August 2008 and up $3.11 for the week. It hit a May contract peak of $119.14 in post-settlement trading.
Brent's front-month 2-1/2-year high of $119.79 was struck on February 24. Brent has bounced back after falling below $108 in the aftermath of Japan's March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
U.S. crude rose $1.22 to settle at $107.94, pushing to $108.47 in post-settlement trading. Both the settlement and the intraday peak were the highest since September 2008. U.S. crude took out the previous 2011 peak ahead of the jobs data.
The weekly total U.S. crude trading volume was the lowest of the year, dropping to 2.45 million lots traded, down from 2.53 million last week and lowest since the week to December 31, according to Reuters data.
Friday's volume of 509,669 lots was 32 percent below the 30-day average, while Brent's daily volume of 454,581 lots, was only 7.5 percent below its 30-day average.
"You have the jobs report, Libya has escalated, you've got Nigeria elections soon and Syria and the Middle East unrest and it's the first day of the quarter so you have new money come in," said Richard Ilczyszyn, senior market strategist at Lind-Waldock in Chicago.
"There is a tug of war going on with the dollar after the jobs report and it's Friday so there may be reluctance to go into the weekend short."
Money managers raised their net-long positions in crude oil futures and options on the New York Mercantile Exchange in the week to Tuesday, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission said in a report on Friday.
The U.S. jobs report showed nonfarm payrolls rose 216,000, more than the 190,000 expected and followed Thursday's report that weekly initial jobless benefit claims fell last week.
The U.S. manufacturing sector grew at a marginally slower pace in March although a measure of prices rose to their highest level since July 2008, according to an industry report that some viewed as adding support for oil prices.
"The trivial drop back in the ISM manufacturing index to 61.2 in March, from 61.4, still leaves it at a level consistent with GDP growth of more than 5 percent annualized," Paul Ashworth, chief U.S. economist at Capital Economics in London said in a note.
He cautioned actual growth, "will be lower," because of the less robust services and weak housing sectors.
The robust jobs data and Fed comments lifted U.S. equities and the S&P 500 index, closely watched by many oil investors, broke above 1,332, doubling the 12-year low hit in March 2009.
DOLLAR AND MONETARY POLICY
Oil seesawed after the jobs report as the dollar strengthened and revived, if briefly, the view that the U.S. Federal Reserve might curb its current ultra-loose monetary policy that tends to benefit riskier assets like commodities.
The U.S. dollar slipped against the euro, though the dollar index retained some gains. More losses versus the euro were seen likely in the near-term on expectations the European Central Bank will tighten monetary policy before the U.S. Federal Reserve.
New York Federal Reserve President William Dudley said it would be a surprise if the Fed did not complete its $600 billion in bond purchases, dampening belief that the positive jobs data would alter policy near term.
LIBYA, MIDDLE EAST TURMOIL
Oil prices remain supported by conflict in Libya and Middle East turmoil.
Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's forces stormed the western rebel outpost of Misrata, while insurgents marshaled defenses in their eastern heartland.
Further supply disruption came from Gabon in central Africa, which produces between 220,000 and 240,000 barrels per day of crude. Striking workers shut half the output on Friday and were to halt the rest within 48 hours.
Bahrain has stepped up arrests of cyber activists and Shi'ites and protests broke out in Syria after Friday prayers, a favored time for demonstrations in the Middle East.
(Additional reporting by David Sheppard in New York, Nia Williams in London and Alejandro Barbajosa in Singapore; Editing by Marguerita Choy)