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Analysts said that while the gesture from the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries would ease fears about a supply crunch heading into the northern hemisphere winter, the peak demand period for oil, it would be unlikely to lower prices significantly.

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New York's main futures contract, light sweet crude for delivery in October climbed 74 cents (AU88 cents) to close at $US78.23 ($AU93.81) per barrel, a record closing high, near its all-time intraday high of $US78.77 ($AU94.45) hit August 1.

The 12-member cartel said it would open the taps from the beginning of November amid concerns that high oil prices could drag down the world economy, already suffering from the consequences of the US housing crisis.

OPEC's decision "will take some of the near-term supply concerns off, but shouldn't put too much downward pressure on markets," said analyst David Kirsch from Washington-based consultancy PFC Energy.

Analyst John Hall from London-based John Hall Associates called the move a "token gesture."

Saudi Arabia appears to have forced through the increase despite stiff opposition from most of its partners, notably OPEC price hawks Iran and Venezuela.

Tensions prompted action

Until the weekend, an output increase had been entirely discounted, but tension in markets and pressure from consumer countries led the Saudi kingdom, a close US ally, to spearhead a campaign for action, analysts believe.

Member countries have "decided to increase the volume of crude supplied to the market…by 500,000 bpd, effective 1 November 2007," said OPEC spokesman Omar Ibrahim.

Secretary General Abdullah el-Badri added: "Our message to consumers is that we care."

But Paul Tossetti of PFC was more cynical, saying: "They wanted to look like good people."

The 10 OPEC members that are bound by production limits have raised their output target by 1.4 million barrels per day to 27.2 million bpd, from its current level of 25.8 million bpd, ministers explained.

But this represents a real increase of 500,000 barrels per day from current levels because OPEC was already producing 900,000 bpd more than its output target, ministers said.

Countries belonging to the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries produce about a third of global oil supplies.

Before the decision was announced, some ministers had talked of their unease at increasing production at a time when the outlook for global economic growth – which determines future demand for oil – is uncertain.

Asian crisis remembered

Algerian Energy Minister Chakib Khelil drew parallels with an OPEC meeting in Jakarta in 1997 when Saudi Arabia forced through an output increase just as the Asian financial crisis was unfolding.

Fears of a recession and reduced demand sent oil prices into a tailspin and crashed to 10 dollars in 1999.

"We still have a meeting at the summit (in November in Saudi Arabia) and an extra meeting in December where we could make the right decision and not the wrong decision – like what happened in Jakarta before, where we had the same situation and we made the wrong decision," argued Mr Khelil.

OPEC also announced that the Algerian minister had been elected president of the organisation for 2008.

He will replace UAE Energy Minister Mohammad bin Dhaen al-Hamli from January 1.

Global financial markets have been in turmoil in recent months due to problems linked to the US housing crisis and fears of tightening credit conditions.

Many economists have lowered their forecasts for growth, particularly for the United States, but the impact of the market turmoil and tightening credit cannot be assessed at present.

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