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MUMBAI, Jan 18 AFP

January 19 2013, 02:14AM

India's largest private firm, Reliance Industries, has reported a surprise 24 per cent rise in quarterly net profit as higher refining margins offset slowing output from offshore fields.

Reliance, controlled by India's wealthiest man, Mukesh Ambani, said net profit for the financial third quarter jumped to 55.02 billion rupees ($A970 million), from 44.4 billion rupees in the same period a year earlier.

Turnover climbed 10 per cent to 963 billion rupees for the quarter, a statement said.

The earnings overshot analysts' expectations of a 50-billion-rupee profit and snapped four consecutive quarters of declines.

"Our performance improved this quarter with margin expansion in petrochemicals and record earnings in the refining business," Ambani said.

Analysts have been concerned in recent months about Reliance's ability to raise gas production from its blocks off India's east coast.

In the first nine months of the fiscal year from April to December, crude oil production from Reliance's main oilfield KG-D6 slid 40 per cent year-on-year to 2.3 million barrels of crude oil.

Natural gas production tumbled 37 per cent to 275 billion cubic feet from April to December over levels a year earlier. "This reduction was due to reservoir complexity and natural decline," the company said.

But countering the output decline, Reliance's gross refining margins rose in the third quarter to $US9.60 a barrel from $US6.80 a year earlier.

In 2011, British energy giant BP paid $US7.2 billion to acquire a 30 per cent stake in 21 of Reliance's oil and gas fields.

Reliance hopes that BP's deepwater drilling expertise will give the Indian giant the skills to develop hard-to-exploit reserves and find more oil.

Reliance operates the world's largest oil-processing complex in Jamnagar, where two adjacent refineries have a combined capacity to process 1.24 million barrels of oil a day.

The company added it was still expanding its retail operations and now operates more than 1400 stores in 129 cities across the country.

Reliance has built up a war chest for acquisitions, with cash reserves of more than 809 billion rupees ($A14 billion) as of the December-end quarter.

The energy behemoth has been scouting for acquisitions and looking to diversify its revenue sources by expanding into financial services, retailing, hotels and communications.

Ambani has also announced a foray into the Indian media sector as well as media and telecom.