Oil fell toward $81 a barrel on Wednesday in volatile trade as expectations for a gain in U.S. crude stockpiles offset surging Chinese imports.

U.S. crude for April delivery fell 24 cents to $81.25 by 0752 GMT (2:52 a.m. ET). It had earlier risen to within $1 of Monday's peak of $82.41, the highest level since prices jumped to a 15-month high of $83.95 on January 11. London ICE Brent for April declined 21 cents to $79.70.

The market has been strong on the belief that the economy is slowly getting better, but it's probably gone too far, said Tony Nunan, a risk manager with Tokyo-based Mitsubishi Corp.

U.S. crude inventories rose by 6.5 million barrels in the week to March 5, against analysts' forecasts for an increase of 1.9 million barrels, the industry-funded American Petroleum Institute (API) said on Tuesday.

More closely watched U.S. inventory statistics from the government's Energy Information Administration (EIA) will be published at 1530 GMT.

Top crude oil exporter Saudi Arabia will keep supply at full contracted volumes in April to at least six of its Asian term buyers, industry sources said on Wednesday, except for a major buyer who will receive 10 percent less than nominated volumes.


Prices earlier traded as high $81.63 after Chinese oil imports data boosted evidence that emerging Asian economies will lead global demand back into growth this year.

China imported 4.83 million barrels of crude per day in February, the second-highest daily tally on record, the country's General Administration of Customs said on Wednesday. Fuel imports rose almost 14 percent, while fuel exports tumbled almost 41 percent.

It's a strong reading, particularly because February was a short month and you had the Chinese New Year holiday, said David Moore, commodities strategist at the Commonwealth Bank of Australia in Sydney.

In Tuesday's U.S. inventory report, the API also said U.S. gasoline stockpiles fell 3.2 million barrels, after the Reuters poll of analysts forecast a gain of 200,000 barrels.

The crude market seems to have been driven by gasoline on the way up, Mitsubishi's Nunan said. It's a seasonal thing; as we go into spring, there is usually a gasoline-driven rally.

Inventories of distillates -- which includes diesel and heating oil -- showed a 2.8 million barrel draw, compared with forecasts for a 900,000 barrel draw.

Oil demand declined in 2008 and 2009 during the biggest recession of the post-war era. (Editing by Clarence Fernandez)