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imageSINGAPORE: The Middle East crude market softened on Tuesday, following a slump in Russian ESPO premiums on weak demand.

Russian producer Surgutneftegas sold three ESPO cargoes for March loading via a tender to Shell.

Two of the cargoes were priced at premiums below $5 to Dubai quotes, down from premiums between $6.2 and $6.9 fetched for cargoes sold last week.

The March 23-27 cargo was priced at $6.40 while the March 19-23 and 26-30 cargoes were at $4.70 and $4.90 a barrel, respectively.

"The $6.40 premium cargo was probably something Shell had wanted while they were trying their luck for the other two," a trader said.

Cargoes loading in the second half of March had been expected to come under pressure as Asia's peak refinery maintenance season will commence in the second quarter, traders said.

ESPO, like Murban, also faced competition from North Sea Forties which is heading to Asia, they said. Weaker crude demand could weigh on the next round of OSPs for Gulf grades, traders said.

DME OMAN

- DME Oman for March settled at $103.98, down 41 cents, at 0830 GMT. This puts DME Oman at 67 cents a barrel above Dubai swaps, down from a premium of 69 cents in the previous session.

MARKET NEWS

- Crude oil tanker earnings on the major Middle East route softened further on Monday as slower business ate into gains which saw rates rise to their highest in two years last week.

- Lukoil, Russia's No.2 oil producer, expects to reach production of 400,000 barrels per day (bpd) at its Iraqi West Qurna-2 field this autumn, with initial output of 120,000 bpd seen in April-May, CEO Vagit Alekperov said.

- The opening round of talks between Iran and six world powers on a long-term deal for Tehran to curb parts of its nuclear program in exchange for a gradual end to sanctions is expected to take place next month in New York, a US official said.

- OPEC will be able to handle the extra oil expected to come from Iran, Iraq and Libya, OPEC's secretary general said on Monday, insisting the group would collectively head off any oversupply.