By Florence Tan
SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Brent crude held steady near $124 on Thursday as news of a surge in U.S. crude inventories and Western nations' talks on releasing strategic oil reserves offset supply disruption concerns over tension in the Middle East.
France is in contact with Britain and the United States over a possible release of strategic oil stocks while the largest weekly build in U.S. crude inventories in more than a year caught investors by surprise.
Brent crude edged down 3 cents to $124.13 by 0250 GMT (10.50 pm EDT)after a fall of 1.09 percent in the previous session. U.S. crude extended losses after a drop of 1.79 percent on Wednesday and was down 3 cents at $105.38.
"There is residual selling from news flow overnight," said Ben Le Brun, a Sydney-based market analyst at brokerage OptionsXpress, pointing to the large build in U.S. crude inventories and the talks on releasing strategic oil stocks.
France's Energy Minister Eric Besson told journalists the United States had asked France to join it in a possible emergency inventory release.
Such a release could happen "in a matter of weeks," Le Monde daily said on Wednesday, citing presidential sources.
Adding to supply, U.S. crude inventories last week soared 7.1 million barrels, the largest build since July 2010, pushing stockpiles to the highest level since August.
Stockpiles at the Cushing, Oklahoma delivery point for the New York Mercantile Exchange crude contract rose 1.04 million barrels to 39.56 million barrels, hitting the highest level since last May.
The rise in crude stocks comes as economic growth in the United States is shaping to be lackluster in the first quarter, with new orders for long-lasting U.S. factory goods rising only modestly in February.
Yet comments from Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke this week raised expectations of more monetary easing policies to hasten the pace of U.S. economic growth.
Front-month Brent crude is expected to post a second straight quarterly rise of more than 15 percent by the end of this week on support from rising tension between Iran and the West over Tehran's nuclear program, production woes in the North Sea and reported attacks on oil-producing areas in South Sudan.
A recovery in the U.S. economy also lifted front-month West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude by more than 6 percent in the first quarter.
"The U.S. economy is still improving and there's a potential savior in a QE3 package if it weakens," Le Brun said.
"This, coupled with any significant downside news coming out of Iran, will underpin the strength in oil prices."
Iran expects to reopen talks with world powers on April 13 in a bid to defuse increasing tension, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said.
With Iran's oil exports facing the threat of tightening sanctions, Saudi Arabia is expected to have a record 140 oil and gas rigs operating by the end of the year, industry sources said.
Saudi Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi blasted "irrationally" high oil prices in an opinion piece in the Financial Times newspaper, but offered no sign the kingdom was moving to boost output.
(Editing by Clarence Fernandez)